Universities think I’m disposable, but my non-tenured status makes me a better teacher

For the past fifteen years, I’ve taught first-year writing at a small liberal arts college, and though I teach essentially the same course every semester, I never get bored. The students I work with are on the brink of adulthood, and their energy is exhilarating. They are goofy and raw, flinging themselves confidently into the world, yet they are full of self-doubt at times. With these students, I try to create a classroom environment that encourages uninhibited free thought and conversation. And yet, no matter what I do or achieve in the classroom, my pedagogical accomplishments will always be perceived as inferior to those of my colleagues. I am “contingent faculty,” otherwise known as an adjunct professor, hired each year on an as-needed basis, though the college always seems to need me.

In the past fifteen years, I’ve taught approximately 40 courses, all but two of them intensive first-year writing. I am happy with the compensation I receive for the work I do, but I teach on one-year contracts, and I often don’t know until early summer if I’ll have a job for the next academic year. If I am hired to teach three courses, I qualify for benefits. Often, I am hired to teach two, and late in the fall semester another course is added for the spring, which demands nimble footwork from the people in payroll and human resources and scrambles my personal finances. One year, I was asked to add a third section of composition in a single term the night before classes started.

Almost anything could impact my employment status from year to year: enrollment, administrative whim, the decision by a tenured professor in another discipline to try their hand at teaching writing. Because of this uncertainty, it feels as though my performance in the classroom has little to do with whether or not I am offered courses in a given year; this is often true for adjuncts. Because our teaching is so rarely observed (colleges and universities seldom invest time and resources in supporting adjuncts’ teaching), we rely on our student evaluations for evidence of our effectiveness, for proof of our very existence in the institution where we feel so often overlooked.

If our evaluations are bad, we may not get asked back. But good evaluations are no guarantee of anything. We are not encumbered by any sense of a safety net; the lack of one forces us to stay fresh, because there is no getting comfortable when you have no idea if you’ll have a job from year to year. Tenured faculty know that pretty much no matter what they do, they’ll be back, and though they argue that they are able to take risks because of this security, equally likely is that their effort will be dimmed, that they will care a little bit less for not having to worry. The edge is harder to hold onto when the landing is soft.

Adjuncts, on the other hand, feel free, and perhaps even compelled, to take chances in the classroom, like having blunt, often uncomfortable, conversations about things like dorm damage and rape culture, about issues and problems on campus and within academia. Pre-tenure faculty depend on student evaluations for promotion and advancement. If students dislike them, rate them poorly, complain to the administration about them, it is their career on the line. I don’t have a career. If my institution decides not to use me, I am free to find work elsewhere. I can afford to level with my students, risking their displeasure, because in order for me to keep wanting to do what I do, I need evaluations that demonstrate that I have helped educate my students, not just made them happy. I can only do that by pushing them out of their comfort zones, with all possible repercussions.

I realize that this position is counterintuitive to the whole idea of tenure, and that it contradicts the belief that adjuncts teach to the evaluations, because they operate, the thinking goes, on the assumption that good evaluations are the only way they get asked back. Supposedly, tenure encourages edginess and boundary-pushing, because tenure is designed to protect intellectual freedom. Too often, though, tenure breeds complacency. When faculty refuse to serve on committees or attend meetings, or when their teaching becomes rote and uninspired, there is little a college or university can do. The National Education Association claims that 2% of tenured faculty are dismissed from their positions every year (http://www.nea.org/home/33067.htm), but they don’t offer details about how often this is due to some sort of gross misconduct versus a dean of faculty or a committee deciding that a tenured professor has just been mailing it in for too long. Professors who are just uninterested in or too far removed from their students’ realities to connect with them in any meaningful way? From what I’ve seen at the various schools I’ve taught at over the years, they’ll keep their jobs as long as they want them. Tenure guarantees a professor the right to due process if an institution wants to remove them, and the institution must compile evidence for removal. Lukewarm or even negative student evaluations of a tenured professor won’t get much attention unless there are other issues of incompetence or unprofessional behavior to address.

But I, not knowing from year to year if I’ll have a job, feel free to swing for the fences. When every semester I teach could be my last, why go out giving anything less than my best effort? I fear only losing what it is I love about teaching: the chance to see what happens when I don’t hold back and when my students don’t, either. For example, I feel compelled to confront students who have always been told their work is perfect. A couple of years ago, a student sat crying in my office because all her fears, she said, had come true. “I knew that being a good high school writer wouldn’t mean anything when I got to college!” She had learned how to produce thorough, precise, intellectually sterile essays. I was offering a seemingly chaotic process that encouraged exploration and experimentation: extensive overwriting without attention to grammar or syntax in the early stages. By the end of the term, she was handing in powerful work.

As an adjunct, I am in the institution but not of it. I’ve seen the best of what academia has to offer: genuine passion for teaching and learning, collegiality and cooperation and respect among colleagues. I’ve also seen the worst: bitter divisions, power grabs, posturing, language designed only to assert the speaker’s sense of superiority. (I once counted how many times a colleague used the word “epistemological” in a routine English department meeting: seven). I have been on the receiving end of innumerable kindnesses; I have also been the target of vicious personal attacks designed to remind me of my low status. But mostly, I have been invisible. Whether I am there or not seems not to matter; only recently has any effort been made to engage me in conversation about the teaching of writing, for example, despite my years of experience. Many times in the past, my attempts to contribute were rebuffed. To many of the tenured faculty, my presence is a seemingly unhappy reminder of loose ends, the untidy extra classes at the fringes of the curriculum that I am sent in to clean up. My otherness has seemed to perplex some of my colleagues; they don’t know quite what to do with me. A professor who had just been awarded tenure expressed disbelief when I asked for my teaching to be observed: “Why would you want the scrutiny we have to go through?” The answer, to me, seemed obvious: I wanted to get better. But I also wanted some acknowledgment.

That the value of a college education has been called into question with particular intensity as of late matters very little to people in positions like mine, because we are not involved with the bigger picture at our schools. In other words, it is very difficult to be critical of an institution or a system of which you are a direct beneficiary; it’s easier for those of us with an outside perspective to ignore the noise. Adjuncts can be honest, are not distracted by campus culture or schmoozing with the administration, and can focus on what matters.

What matters to me, the reason I do this work when I could earn similar wages elsewhere, are the relationships with my students; they are central to my work as a college professor. Without job security, status, benefits, or any of the other perks of tenure, what is left for professors like me is the teaching itself, nothing less and nothing more. I teach my students and I am interested in and available to them, but when my classes and office hours are over, I leave. I don’t get bogged down in campus politics, department or committee meetings, or the constant one-upmanship that plagues faculty interaction. I am not tempted to waste my energy; I have no dogs in those fights.

Nonetheless, I’m forced to face the reality that adjuncts are disposable; we live with the constant sense that we are unwanted, that our opinions don’t matter. (Recently, the college alerted the faculty, including me, that we would be asked to fill out a survey about job satisfaction. It later had to be clarified that only tenured and tenure-track faculty were being surveyed). However, the nervous freedom I feel about having a job or not translates to a classroom energy that is unencumbered, and therefore exciting. Carmen Maria Machado writes in her March 2015 New Yorker essay “O Adjunct! My Adjunct!” that “If I disappeared at the end of the semester, the school would replace me without much trouble, having invested nothing at all in my career. This sensation – a great responsibility, precariously held – is also like nothing else I’ve experienced.”  I agree. I could go do other work, but this teaching feels sacred, and I know I am lucky to have it. The constant sense of peril forces me to live in the moment of each semester, and I want to present to you a radical, controversial position: I am every bit as good a teacher, perhaps better in some cases, than my tenured colleagues, precisely because of my status as an adjunct professor.

The usual arguments for and against tenure are stale and tiresome. Tenured faculty feel entitled to it because of how hard it is, supposedly, to get. Adjunct faculty want to teach and not be exploited. But regardless of your position in this longstanding debate, it’s not hard to see the ways in which the status quo is unsustainable. Tuition at private colleges continues to soar, yet the value of a bachelor’s degree is now decreasing. Studies showing how significantly a college degree boosts earning “prompted a stampede through college and university gates” according to a recent article in The Christian Science Monitor. But a glut of people with the degree has made the Master’s degree what the bachelor’s once was, which forces students to take on even more debt: running to stand still. And with a decrease in tenure-track positions and a dramatic increase in a reliance on cheap adjunct labor to balance the books, academia itself becomes less appealing, or even viable, as a career choice. We’re at a crossroads.

We need a model that harnesses the energy that fuels fresh teaching and jettisons the machinery that both discourages innovation and encourages stratification on campus. The distinctions between faculty are increasingly artificial and misleading; labels and titles are the rewards for successfully manipulating the system rather than an acknowledgement of a commitment to excellence.

I am not suggesting that adjuncts are categorically better classroom teachers than tenured ones, although we do teach differently, and these differences are valuable. I am suggesting that colleges and universities who employ adjuncts need to recognize that they are an underutilized resource in terms of the existential soul-searching academia is having to do these days, as the value of an expensive education is questioned with growing intensity. Adjuncts are highly educated, deeply dedicated, and working on the front lines of teaching. And yet we are consistently taken for granted. The second-class status imposed on us is a false construct that fails both the institution and its students.

Yet it might be the very thing that helps us retain our edge. Outsiders keep the mainstream honest. For this reason alone, I don’t want tenure. I only want a chance to become more a part of the life of the institution I support with my hard work. This lack of professional ambition, as some might see it, doesn’t make me any less of a teacher. It’s possible, notes Rachel Reiderer in “The Teaching Class,” “to love what one does, be good at it, and still be exploited.”

I don’t want to lose what helps keep me at my best in the classroom; neither do I want to participate in a system that takes advantage of my willingness to accept the crumbs that fall from the table. There is a better way, for everyone involved: support adjuncts fairly, and knock down the divisions between “us” and “them” in academia. Let’s hold each other, and ourselves, to a higher standard than the one we’re using now.

For the past fifteen years, I’ve taught first-year writing at a small liberal arts college, and though I teach essentially the same course every semester, I never get bored. The students I work with are on the brink of adulthood, and their energy is exhilarating. They are goofy and raw, flinging themselves confidently into the world, yet they are full of self-doubt at times. With these students, I try to create a classroom environment that encourages uninhibited free thought and conversation. And yet, no matter what I do or achieve in the classroom, my pedagogical accomplishments will always be perceived as inferior to those of my colleagues. I am “contingent faculty,” otherwise known as an adjunct professor, hired each year on an as-needed basis, though the college always seems to need me.

In the past fifteen years, I’ve taught approximately 40 courses, all but two of them intensive first-year writing. I am happy with the compensation I receive for the work I do, but I teach on one-year contracts, and I often don’t know until early summer if I’ll have a job for the next academic year. If I am hired to teach three courses, I qualify for benefits. Often, I am hired to teach two, and late in the fall semester another course is added for the spring, which demands nimble footwork from the people in payroll and human resources and scrambles my personal finances. One year, I was asked to add a third section of composition in a single term the night before classes started.

Almost anything could impact my employment status from year to year: enrollment, administrative whim, the decision by a tenured professor in another discipline to try their hand at teaching writing. Because of this uncertainty, it feels as though my performance in the classroom has little to do with whether or not I am offered courses in a given year; this is often true for adjuncts. Because our teaching is so rarely observed (colleges and universities seldom invest time and resources in supporting adjuncts’ teaching), we rely on our student evaluations for evidence of our effectiveness, for proof of our very existence in the institution where we feel so often overlooked.

If our evaluations are bad, we may not get asked back. But good evaluations are no guarantee of anything. We are not encumbered by any sense of a safety net; the lack of one forces us to stay fresh, because there is no getting comfortable when you have no idea if you’ll have a job from year to year. Tenured faculty know that pretty much no matter what they do, they’ll be back, and though they argue that they are able to take risks because of this security, equally likely is that their effort will be dimmed, that they will care a little bit less for not having to worry. The edge is harder to hold onto when the landing is soft.

Adjuncts, on the other hand, feel free, and perhaps even compelled, to take chances in the classroom, like having blunt, often uncomfortable, conversations about things like dorm damage and rape culture, about issues and problems on campus and within academia. Pre-tenure faculty depend on student evaluations for promotion and advancement. If students dislike them, rate them poorly, complain to the administration about them, it is their career on the line. I don’t have a career. If my institution decides not to use me, I am free to find work elsewhere. I can afford to level with my students, risking their displeasure, because in order for me to keep wanting to do what I do, I need evaluations that demonstrate that I have helped educate my students, not just made them happy. I can only do that by pushing them out of their comfort zones, with all possible repercussions.

I realize that this position is counterintuitive to the whole idea of tenure, and that it contradicts the belief that adjuncts teach to the evaluations, because they operate, the thinking goes, on the assumption that good evaluations are the only way they get asked back. Supposedly, tenure encourages edginess and boundary-pushing, because tenure is designed to protect intellectual freedom. Too often, though, tenure breeds complacency. When faculty refuse to serve on committees or attend meetings, or when their teaching becomes rote and uninspired, there is little a college or university can do. The National Education Association claims that 2% of tenured faculty are dismissed from their positions every year (http://www.nea.org/home/33067.htm), but they don’t offer details about how often this is due to some sort of gross misconduct versus a dean of faculty or a committee deciding that a tenured professor has just been mailing it in for too long. Professors who are just uninterested in or too far removed from their students’ realities to connect with them in any meaningful way? From what I’ve seen at the various schools I’ve taught at over the years, they’ll keep their jobs as long as they want them. Tenure guarantees a professor the right to due process if an institution wants to remove them, and the institution must compile evidence for removal. Lukewarm or even negative student evaluations of a tenured professor won’t get much attention unless there are other issues of incompetence or unprofessional behavior to address.

But I, not knowing from year to year if I’ll have a job, feel free to swing for the fences. When every semester I teach could be my last, why go out giving anything less than my best effort? I fear only losing what it is I love about teaching: the chance to see what happens when I don’t hold back and when my students don’t, either. For example, I feel compelled to confront students who have always been told their work is perfect. A couple of years ago, a student sat crying in my office because all her fears, she said, had come true. “I knew that being a good high school writer wouldn’t mean anything when I got to college!” She had learned how to produce thorough, precise, intellectually sterile essays. I was offering a seemingly chaotic process that encouraged exploration and experimentation: extensive overwriting without attention to grammar or syntax in the early stages. By the end of the term, she was handing in powerful work.

As an adjunct, I am in the institution but not of it. I’ve seen the best of what academia has to offer: genuine passion for teaching and learning, collegiality and cooperation and respect among colleagues. I’ve also seen the worst: bitter divisions, power grabs, posturing, language designed only to assert the speaker’s sense of superiority. (I once counted how many times a colleague used the word “epistemological” in a routine English department meeting: seven). I have been on the receiving end of innumerable kindnesses; I have also been the target of vicious personal attacks designed to remind me of my low status. But mostly, I have been invisible. Whether I am there or not seems not to matter; only recently has any effort been made to engage me in conversation about the teaching of writing, for example, despite my years of experience. Many times in the past, my attempts to contribute were rebuffed. To many of the tenured faculty, my presence is a seemingly unhappy reminder of loose ends, the untidy extra classes at the fringes of the curriculum that I am sent in to clean up. My otherness has seemed to perplex some of my colleagues; they don’t know quite what to do with me. A professor who had just been awarded tenure expressed disbelief when I asked for my teaching to be observed: “Why would you want the scrutiny we have to go through?” The answer, to me, seemed obvious: I wanted to get better. But I also wanted some acknowledgment.

That the value of a college education has been called into question with particular intensity as of late matters very little to people in positions like mine, because we are not involved with the bigger picture at our schools. In other words, it is very difficult to be critical of an institution or a system of which you are a direct beneficiary; it’s easier for those of us with an outside perspective to ignore the noise. Adjuncts can be honest, are not distracted by campus culture or schmoozing with the administration, and can focus on what matters.

What matters to me, the reason I do this work when I could earn similar wages elsewhere, are the relationships with my students; they are central to my work as a college professor. Without job security, status, benefits, or any of the other perks of tenure, what is left for professors like me is the teaching itself, nothing less and nothing more. I teach my students and I am interested in and available to them, but when my classes and office hours are over, I leave. I don’t get bogged down in campus politics, department or committee meetings, or the constant one-upmanship that plagues faculty interaction. I am not tempted to waste my energy; I have no dogs in those fights.

Nonetheless, I’m forced to face the reality that adjuncts are disposable; we live with the constant sense that we are unwanted, that our opinions don’t matter. (Recently, the college alerted the faculty, including me, that we would be asked to fill out a survey about job satisfaction. It later had to be clarified that only tenured and tenure-track faculty were being surveyed). However, the nervous freedom I feel about having a job or not translates to a classroom energy that is unencumbered, and therefore exciting. Carmen Maria Machado writes in her March 2015 New Yorker essay “O Adjunct! My Adjunct!” that “If I disappeared at the end of the semester, the school would replace me without much trouble, having invested nothing at all in my career. This sensation – a great responsibility, precariously held – is also like nothing else I’ve experienced.”  I agree. I could go do other work, but this teaching feels sacred, and I know I am lucky to have it. The constant sense of peril forces me to live in the moment of each semester, and I want to present to you a radical, controversial position: I am every bit as good a teacher, perhaps better in some cases, than my tenured colleagues, precisely because of my status as an adjunct professor.

The usual arguments for and against tenure are stale and tiresome. Tenured faculty feel entitled to it because of how hard it is, supposedly, to get. Adjunct faculty want to teach and not be exploited. But regardless of your position in this longstanding debate, it’s not hard to see the ways in which the status quo is unsustainable. Tuition at private colleges continues to soar, yet the value of a bachelor’s degree is now decreasing. Studies showing how significantly a college degree boosts earning “prompted a stampede through college and university gates” according to a recent article in The Christian Science Monitor. But a glut of people with the degree has made the Master’s degree what the bachelor’s once was, which forces students to take on even more debt: running to stand still. And with a decrease in tenure-track positions and a dramatic increase in a reliance on cheap adjunct labor to balance the books, academia itself becomes less appealing, or even viable, as a career choice. We’re at a crossroads.

We need a model that harnesses the energy that fuels fresh teaching and jettisons the machinery that both discourages innovation and encourages stratification on campus. The distinctions between faculty are increasingly artificial and misleading; labels and titles are the rewards for successfully manipulating the system rather than an acknowledgement of a commitment to excellence.

I am not suggesting that adjuncts are categorically better classroom teachers than tenured ones, although we do teach differently, and these differences are valuable. I am suggesting that colleges and universities who employ adjuncts need to recognize that they are an underutilized resource in terms of the existential soul-searching academia is having to do these days, as the value of an expensive education is questioned with growing intensity. Adjuncts are highly educated, deeply dedicated, and working on the front lines of teaching. And yet we are consistently taken for granted. The second-class status imposed on us is a false construct that fails both the institution and its students.

Yet it might be the very thing that helps us retain our edge. Outsiders keep the mainstream honest. For this reason alone, I don’t want tenure. I only want a chance to become more a part of the life of the institution I support with my hard work. This lack of professional ambition, as some might see it, doesn’t make me any less of a teacher. It’s possible, notes Rachel Reiderer in “The Teaching Class,” “to love what one does, be good at it, and still be exploited.”

I don’t want to lose what helps keep me at my best in the classroom; neither do I want to participate in a system that takes advantage of my willingness to accept the crumbs that fall from the table. There is a better way, for everyone involved: support adjuncts fairly, and knock down the divisions between “us” and “them” in academia. Let’s hold each other, and ourselves, to a higher standard than the one we’re using now.

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Our “Falling Down” election: What an Angry White Man on a rampage can tell us about Donald Trump and voter rage

In 1993, a movie came out that followed a laid-off defense engineer who walked, grim-faced, across Los Angeles after being stopped dead in a traffic jam. The movie was deliberately zeitgeist-y: In his white shirt, tie, and crew cut, Michael Douglas’s character was somewhere between an Everyman and a parody of a certain kind of white guy — embodying the rage of the “entitled” Caucasian who was now seeing how life worked for working class people and minorities. He encounters almost no other middle-class white males in his march across the dirty, chaotic city. Instead, he shouts at a Korean market-owner for his accent and prices — trashing his shop — attacks two Latino men with a baseball bat, and walks away callously as a mostly nonwhite group are hit by bullets intended for him. Many of the shots of the city show non-English writing on signs and storefronts. He’s also alienated from his wife (played by Barbara Hershey), who has filed a restraining order against him. The movie was read at the time as a statement about the Angry White Man, as well as a general feeling of frustration, experienced widely, as the nation emerged from a recession. Here’s a review by Hal Hinson in the Washington Post:

As a description of our collective recession-era funk, “Falling Down” is to the early ’90s what “Network” was to the late ’70s. Written by Ebbe Roe Smith, the movie appraises the state of our national disease in a manner that goes far beyond what economic indicators tell us. If the last election was about change, the soul sickness shown in “Falling Down”reflects precisely why that change was essential. It’s the grim chart at the end of our hospital beds.

The movie seems like a natural to describe the emergence of Newt Gingrich, who drew heavily from discontented middle-class whites. The film could serve, more recently, as an explanation of the psychology of the Tea Party, especially given many of those voters’ discomfort with multicultural America. A 2010 posting on Breitbart did both these things. In 2016, the movie seems like a natural reference point for the wave of frustration Donald Trump is riding. Trump’s support comes heavily from white men, some of whom, like Douglas’s character, lament the way the country is changing, are given to violence, and express themselves through an intense, macho brand of anger. This Esquire story updates the movie to our era and the current Republican frontrunner.

Falling Down is about a toxic mixture of self-pity and the hunger for order. But both the movie’s creators believed that a man like William Foster was an anachronism; the world had passed him by. They were wrong. Donald Trump has tapped into a certain resentment toward the cultural shifts afoot in the U.S., and it is enough, probably, to launch him at least to become the Republican party’s nominee.

This won’t be the last of these pieces, and there’s a reason they’ll proliferate. The parallels between Douglas’s character (known as D-FENS, for his license plate) and Trump voters are real. But they’re hardly a perfect fit. Some of these differences are less serious than others. For instance, Douglas’ character is a West Coast urbanite. Trump’s support comes most strongly from rural people in New York State, Appalachia and other parts of the South. The difference in education is perhaps more important: The “Falling Down” character is an engineer; Trump support is strongest among voters without college degrees. One thing they do have in common remains important, and it part of what’s most interesting about the movie: Except for a scene in which D-FENS confronts a neo-Nazi and another in which he lashes out at two wealthy golfers, his conflicts are almost all with people poorer or less privileged than he is. And he feels, from what we can tell, nothing but contempt for these others. He certainly doesn’t see himself as caught in the same economic web as those he disdains. He doesn’t realize that they’re struggling with something too. There’s just about no empathy coming from him, and even less compassion. In another way, the film remains relevant: A lot of people — and not just racists or people who are inherently resentful — have seen their lives stall or turned upside down because of the impact of the Great Recession, the spike in rents and home prices, the reshaping of the economy and other changes. Liberals, affluent urbanites and professionals in the media condescend to these people at their peril. The last decade has shown that economic shifts can unseat even those who thought they were protected. Sneer at people who have been downsized, and you may find it happening to you. Or you may find an even more virulent political movement growing. Something new seems to be happening now, as well. Bernie Sanders, who taps into similar fears and resentments as Trump, continues to win voters while Trump seems to be more and more disliked. The Washington Post reports:

These numbers are simply amazing. Trump is viewed unfavorably by at least 80 percent of some of the groups that Republican strategists had hoped the GOP might improve among: young voters and Latinos. He’s viewed unfavorably by three out of four moderates… What’s more, these new numbers also suggest other complications to Trump’s working-class-white strategy that we’ve discussed before: Trump seems uniquely positioned to alienate white women and white college graduates to an untold degree.

The fading of Trump’s support may have to do with more than just his hard line on abortion, which has certainly hurt him with women. It also may be that he has too much in common with Michael Douglas’s character. Anger can be compelling, especially in the short term. But if someone — whether a billionaire or a downsized engineer — demonstrates no empathy, no sense of common humanity, it’s just hot air. In a two-hour movie, the frustration can hold our attention. But month after month, someone full of rage and no sense of other people’s pain or experience becomes tiresome. Americans — at least a few of them — may be seeing this now.In 1993, a movie came out that followed a laid-off defense engineer who walked, grim-faced, across Los Angeles after being stopped dead in a traffic jam. The movie was deliberately zeitgeist-y: In his white shirt, tie, and crew cut, Michael Douglas’s character was somewhere between an Everyman and a parody of a certain kind of white guy — embodying the rage of the “entitled” Caucasian who was now seeing how life worked for working class people and minorities. He encounters almost no other middle-class white males in his march across the dirty, chaotic city. Instead, he shouts at a Korean market-owner for his accent and prices — trashing his shop — attacks two Latino men with a baseball bat, and walks away callously as a mostly nonwhite group are hit by bullets intended for him. Many of the shots of the city show non-English writing on signs and storefronts. He’s also alienated from his wife (played by Barbara Hershey), who has filed a restraining order against him. The movie was read at the time as a statement about the Angry White Man, as well as a general feeling of frustration, experienced widely, as the nation emerged from a recession. Here’s a review by Hal Hinson in the Washington Post:

As a description of our collective recession-era funk, “Falling Down” is to the early ’90s what “Network” was to the late ’70s. Written by Ebbe Roe Smith, the movie appraises the state of our national disease in a manner that goes far beyond what economic indicators tell us. If the last election was about change, the soul sickness shown in “Falling Down”reflects precisely why that change was essential. It’s the grim chart at the end of our hospital beds.

The movie seems like a natural to describe the emergence of Newt Gingrich, who drew heavily from discontented middle-class whites. The film could serve, more recently, as an explanation of the psychology of the Tea Party, especially given many of those voters’ discomfort with multicultural America. A 2010 posting on Breitbart did both these things. In 2016, the movie seems like a natural reference point for the wave of frustration Donald Trump is riding. Trump’s support comes heavily from white men, some of whom, like Douglas’s character, lament the way the country is changing, are given to violence, and express themselves through an intense, macho brand of anger. This Esquire story updates the movie to our era and the current Republican frontrunner.

Falling Down is about a toxic mixture of self-pity and the hunger for order. But both the movie’s creators believed that a man like William Foster was an anachronism; the world had passed him by. They were wrong. Donald Trump has tapped into a certain resentment toward the cultural shifts afoot in the U.S., and it is enough, probably, to launch him at least to become the Republican party’s nominee.

This won’t be the last of these pieces, and there’s a reason they’ll proliferate. The parallels between Douglas’s character (known as D-FENS, for his license plate) and Trump voters are real. But they’re hardly a perfect fit. Some of these differences are less serious than others. For instance, Douglas’ character is a West Coast urbanite. Trump’s support comes most strongly from rural people in New York State, Appalachia and other parts of the South. The difference in education is perhaps more important: The “Falling Down” character is an engineer; Trump support is strongest among voters without college degrees. One thing they do have in common remains important, and it part of what’s most interesting about the movie: Except for a scene in which D-FENS confronts a neo-Nazi and another in which he lashes out at two wealthy golfers, his conflicts are almost all with people poorer or less privileged than he is. And he feels, from what we can tell, nothing but contempt for these others. He certainly doesn’t see himself as caught in the same economic web as those he disdains. He doesn’t realize that they’re struggling with something too. There’s just about no empathy coming from him, and even less compassion. In another way, the film remains relevant: A lot of people — and not just racists or people who are inherently resentful — have seen their lives stall or turned upside down because of the impact of the Great Recession, the spike in rents and home prices, the reshaping of the economy and other changes. Liberals, affluent urbanites and professionals in the media condescend to these people at their peril. The last decade has shown that economic shifts can unseat even those who thought they were protected. Sneer at people who have been downsized, and you may find it happening to you. Or you may find an even more virulent political movement growing. Something new seems to be happening now, as well. Bernie Sanders, who taps into similar fears and resentments as Trump, continues to win voters while Trump seems to be more and more disliked. The Washington Post reports:

These numbers are simply amazing. Trump is viewed unfavorably by at least 80 percent of some of the groups that Republican strategists had hoped the GOP might improve among: young voters and Latinos. He’s viewed unfavorably by three out of four moderates… What’s more, these new numbers also suggest other complications to Trump’s working-class-white strategy that we’ve discussed before: Trump seems uniquely positioned to alienate white women and white college graduates to an untold degree.

The fading of Trump’s support may have to do with more than just his hard line on abortion, which has certainly hurt him with women. It also may be that he has too much in common with Michael Douglas’s character. Anger can be compelling, especially in the short term. But if someone — whether a billionaire or a downsized engineer — demonstrates no empathy, no sense of common humanity, it’s just hot air. In a two-hour movie, the frustration can hold our attention. But month after month, someone full of rage and no sense of other people’s pain or experience becomes tiresome. Americans — at least a few of them — may be seeing this now.

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“The system deprives athletes of the education that they’re promised”: Joe Nocera on the injustice of college sports

On Saturday evening, the University of North Carolina and Syracuse University will face off in the Final Four of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in front of tens of thousands of fans at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. The game will be televised on CBS, which along with Turner signed a 14-year, $10.8 billion contract with the NCAA for the rights to the tournament in 2010.  The Atlantic Coast Conference, to which both schools belong, will earn a record $40 million from the tournament. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and North Carolina coach Roy Williams each reportedly earn about $2 million annually. Aside from scholarships, none of the players on either team will receive financial compensation. Both Syracuse and North Carolina are emerging from NCAA compliance scandals. A 2015 NCAA investigation of the Syracuse men’s basketball program revealed “academic misconduct, extra benefits, the failure to follow its drug testing policy and impermissible booster activity.” The university voluntarily sat out last year’s tournament in an effort to avoid harsher NCAA sanctions; Boeheim was suspended for nine games earlier this season. North Carolina is awaiting the announcement of NCAA sanctions — which, conveniently, has been delayed until after the lucrative tournament — stemming from a decades-long pattern of academic fraud involving a “shadow curriculum” of fake classes taken by student-athletes. The injustice, corruption and exploitation at the heart of college athletics are dissected in the new book “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA,” by New York Times columnist Joe Nocera and New York Times contributing writer Ben Strauss. “Indentured” explores the history of big money in college athletics and the ongoing fight to reform the NCAA, an organization that Nocera and Strauss believe acts against the interests of the very student-athletes it sanctimoniously claims to protect. Joe Nocera joined Salon for a conversation about “Indentured” and the state of college sports: Do you see Saturday’s Final Four game between Syracuse and the University of North Carolina as an embodiment of some of the larger problems in college sports? What it embodies is the extent to which the bargain between the university and the student is a corrupt bargain for the student. Because in both cases, but especially the UNC case, at the heart of it was what they call academic fraud. Basically, the athletes at UNC were not getting a legitimate education. They were taking these fake classes to stay eligible — they were majoring in eligibility. At Syracuse, for all the time they spent investigating, ultimately the main bad thing that happened was that an academic counselor took a test for Fab Melo, which is also a form of academic fraud. They embody the way the system deprives athletes — especially football and men’s basketball players — of the education that they’re promised. Has the NCAA’s handling of the punishments relating to these cases exposed its underlying profit motive? Well, of course. Take the example down in Louisville, where they self-imposed a penalty to try and lighten the load. Or at Ohio State, where they basically said five players got impermissible benefits, but they weren’t going to get penalized until the following season because they had to play in the Sugar Bowl where there was a lot of money at stake. UNC is sort of the same thing. It’s hard to believe that the NCAA doesn’t already know what it’s going to do, what the problem is, but here we are in the Final Four, and everybody’s going to try to ignore it until they get through it and all they money is made. The ACC is getting somewhere around $40 million because of their success in this tournament. Why do you think indentured servitude is an apt metaphor for the current state of college sports? Indentured servants were people who basically worked for someone else for years, for no money, with restrictions on their movement and a limited ability to leave until a prearranged point. They were indentured to these other people, and college athletes are in many ways indentured. They have limited movement, they are deprived of many rights that every other American and every other student on campus has, and basically, they’re in a system where everyone is getting rich off their labors and they get nothing of monetary value whatsoever. In fact, the NCAA is setting limits on their compensation, which you would think would be against the law. And it’s also restricting athletes’ ability to profit from the use of their own image, which is maybe even more egregious.  They don’t have the right to use their name, image and likeness; they don’t have the right to endorse; they don’t have the right to get money from their autograph. In high school, if their mother takes money to go on a recruiting trip with them, that’s a violation — they don’t have the right to do that. The NCAA’s definition of amateurism is really quite all-encompassing and incredibly onerous. The NCAA holds up amateurism as the be-all and end-all in college athletics. Does that idea hold up under scrutiny? They say a couple of things. First, they say, “They can’t be paid because they’re students.” And then they say, “Well, they’re students, so they can’t be paid.” The truth is that any other student on campus can be paid. And, in fact, they can be paid by the university and they’re still students. So that’s really a pretty bogus rationale. The other rationale they have is that amateurism is kind of the special sauce of college sports. If you took amateurism away and you started to pay the players, you would wreck what was special about college sports. The fans would be turned off, the alumni would be turned off, the student body would be turned off, and they would lose what makes it special. I don’t believe that’s true. I think what’s true is that they want to have some knowledge that the players are actually students at the university. Although in cases like the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team, you sort of have to wonder if even that is something people care about, given that most of those players just spend one semester in school and then basically don’t go to class for the second semester and then go pro. A classic defense that you hear from supporters of the NCAA is that the scholarship athletes are getting a free education and thus don’t deserve additional compensation. How do you respond to that line of thinking? I think it’s off-base for two reasons. The first is that athletes should have rights. Part of those rights are economic rights. They should get what their value is. Most of them won’t go pro. They have this tiny window to make some money on their athletic ability and they’re deprived of that. So you could say, “OK, they’re getting a scholarship that’s going to be worth a couple hundred thousand dollars, and more importantly, they’re going to get an education.” But the truth is that when you’re a college athlete — especially if you’re a football or men’s basketball player — you are on the campus to generate revenue for the university. That’s your job, and that comes before academics every time. You don’t get to pick the majors that you want, you don’t get to pick the classes that you want, you miss tons of classes because you’re traveling. That’s what you’re there for. So the idea that they’re supposed to be satisfied with an education, which is basically substandard at best, is kind of a fraudulent argument. One of the things that I’m arguing, aside from all the pay stuff, is that there should be lifetime scholarships. Athletes should not have to take a full course load. They should be able to get by with one or two classes a semester and then finish their education when their eligibility is done. I think it would be harder for people like me to argue that they were getting a substandard education if they had lifetime scholarships and if they had the ability to go back to school and get that education after their playing days were over. Why has this conversation only become mainstream in the last five years or so? I suspect the explanation goes beyond simply the attention the issue has received because of the O’Bannon case and coverage like your 2011 piece in the New York Times Magazine and the 2011 cover story in The Atlantic. Jay Bilas, who is a huge advocate for paying the players, told me that when he was a college athlete he thought a lot about things players were deprived of, like health care and so on. But he didn’t really think about money, because his coach, Mike Krzyzewski, only made $100,000. Today, Mike Krzyzewski makes $10 million. College sports has gone from a business that was hundreds of millions of dollars to being a business that’s literally billions of dollars. It’s a giant entertainment industry. I think one of the reasons people have latched onto this, why more sports writers and columnists are writing about it, why the average fan is thinking about it, is just because college sports is so saturated in money. It’s also because everything else about college sports is so blatantly commercialized. You have the NCAA sponsors, the bowl games all have corporate names, the players wear logos for Nike and other corporations. So to have all of that and to say, “Well, the players shouldn’t get any of this,” is so blatantly hypocritical that more and more people are looking up from the game itself and saying, “Gee, there’s something really screwy with this system.” Sonny Vaccaro, whose story you cover in “Indentured,” played a big role in the commercialization of college sports but is now active in reform efforts. What do you make of his motives for taking up this fight? It’s interesting because he was famously “the sneaker pimp” for much of his career. He was the guy who invented the sneaker contract — where you pay the coach to have the players wear the sneakers — and he did that for many years. If you ask him if he’s trying to redeem himself he will vehemently say no, but it’s hard to believe that’s not part of his motive. Another part of his motive is just that he has known these young, poor, black kids all his life, and he has spent much of his life thinking these guys are getting screwed by the NCAA. Not just with money, but with investigations and penalties and all sorts of things. So basically, he’s angry about the NCAA. He’s angry about the system. He is in many ways motivated by this anger that he harbors towards the NCAA. What did you learn about those underlying topics of race, inequality and social justice while reporting on this issue?  Before the current North Carolina scandal, there was a different North Carolina scandal that revolved around the football team, some of which had to do with academics, much of which had to with hanging around with a guy who represented an agent. A lot of players got in trouble. The mother of Devon Ramsay, one of the players, sent me a sheet of paper with the 14 players who were in trouble. The only thing she said in the note was, “What do these guys have in common?” And the answer was that they were all black. So I started to really pay attention to that. Part of it is a money issue because a lot of these athletes are poor and they come from impoverished neighborhoods and single moms and they’re black and they don’t have any money. Amateurism is about money. So if you’re a white middle-class kid and your mom wants to come on your recruiting trip, she just jumps on an airplane and pays for the ticket. If you’re a single mom in an impoverished neighborhood that doesn’t have much money, somebody has to give you the money, and the NCAA views that as an improper benefit. The NCAA is extremely suspicious of African players who come to the United States to play high school and then college basketball. It’s extremely suspicious of black players who have older white friends or benefactors — they just automatically assume something bad is going on. So there’s a level of suspicion towards black players that just doesn’t exist in the way they look at white players. That’s the simple, plain fact that becomes more and more obvious once you focus on it. “Indentured” discusses several economists who were important players in challenging the NCAA in the courts. Can you explain their role? There are three economists named Andy Schwartz, Dan Rascher and Ernie Nadel — Nadel is now retired — and they were at a litigation consulting firm. Especially in antitrust law, you need economists to write briefing papers and do reports for the court, so they did a lot of that. They were sports fans, and they just got interested in this whole idea of the NCAA and college sports and antitrust and how the players were deprived of their rights, especially economically. They’re also real free market guys, so their basic view is that the conferences should set the compensation limits for players and they should compete with each other the way American companies compete with each other. They’re really smart. The first time you hear their ideas, you’re a little flustered. Even I was because you’re not used to hearing it anybody talk like this. But as time went on, I found their ideas more and more compelling and persuasive, and I couldn’t argue against them. The counterarguments all seem kind of ridiculous, patronizing even. When I was writing my columns about the NCAA, they became good sources for me. Then when I was starting the book, they became central characters, partly because of their views, which they’ve been pretty public about, but also because they provided a lot of the economic brain power that led the O’Bannon case. They’d been trying to gin up an antitrust case against the NCAA for like 15 years. They were the first ones to try and figure this out, so that’s why they’re big characters in the book. Why do they propose that economic competition should take place at the conference level rather than at the university level? They wouldn’t be against universities doing it themselves, but their view is that the conference is the appropriate unit to set compensation. So that all the Big 10 players have the same set of rules and the SEC players have a different set of rules, and they can compete for players based on their different compensation rules, or different other rules for that matter. Some could offer lifetime health insurance or lifetime scholarships, that could be part of their compensation. There would be competition between the conferences just like there’s competition between Google and Apple. Does your salary cap proposal for compensating players appear in the book? No, it doesn’t. We don’t get into proposals to fix the system, we mostly just let our characters do that. I have now come to the conclusion that my salary cap system probably violates the antitrust laws because it still allows the NCAA itself to set compensation limits rather than conferences or universities. I now believe strongly that players should be able to exercise their economic rights wherever that happens to lead. How do the sports that don’t produce big money — basically everything other than football and men’s basketball — fit into this? They actually call the big money sports the revenue sports. They generate the revenue. So I would argue that in all the other sports, the players work really hard — I acknowledge that — but they are not employees of the university in the way that a college football player is because they’re not there to generate revenue for the school. I would basically say that the other sports should pretty much stay the way they are. I do believe that the Olympic model should exist for all players in all sports. If the local auto dealer in Hartford wants to have the UConn women’s basketball team do a group ad for their cars, they ought to be able to do that. That would also give people the right to their name and likeness, which they ought to have. It would allow them to sign autographs. I think everybody should be able to do that. But I don’t think the players in the other sports should get paid because most of them really are getting an education, the universities can’t really afford it and it just doesn’t make much economic sense. Are you optimistic about the movement to reform the NCAA? I’m pretty downbeat about the prospect of real reform. There have definitely been some good things that have happened on the margins. As the Power 5 conferences have gotten more autonomy, now you have this cost of attendance payment, the difference between your scholarship and the actual cost of attending college. The players do get a check every month for that. Health care is a little bit better; there are concussion protocols now, at least at some universities. Things have gotten better on the margins, but on the big stuff — due process, economic rights, stupid stuff like the transfer rule that overly restricts athletes — that stuff has not changed and there’s no incentive in the system to change. Although the reformers have gotten louder and their voices have been heard more, the huge weight of all these institutions is on the other side. There was an article on CNN’s website just the other day by Val Ackerman, the head of the Big East, and Larry Scott, the commissioner of the Pac-12, jointly writing an article about how privileged these athletes should feel because they’re getting this wonderful free education and they have all these benefits. So my views are very much in the minority. The courts have been a huge disappointment because even though they have ruled that amateurism rules violate antitrust law, they have not been willing to take the next step and say that if the rules violate the law, you have to get rid of the rules. The courts have had only the tiniest of remedies. The government is not going to get involved, they’ve got other fish to fry. So the only way the system is really going to change is if the players themselves rise up, and I don’t really see that happening on the horizon anytime soon. Do you think the NCAA’s ideal of the “student-athlete” is a realistic concept? No, I don’t. Not the way we have it structured now. At the very least we should be calling them athlete-students, to at least emphasize what the actual priorities are. As long as college sports is a giant money-making behemoth, and as long as it’s run by universities which are nonprofit and have a very different set of incentives and motives, they’re always going to be at cross-purposes. It’s always going to be problematic. There’s always going to be some level of fraud and the players are always going to get cheated.

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The governor who poisoned Flint: The GOP’s Rick Snyder thought he might be president. Not so fast…

When Rick Snyder took the reigns from Jennifer Granholm on Jan. 1, 2011, there was a certain smugness hanging in Michigan’s raw winter air.

The changing of the guard had been fairly pleasant –– the Republican and Democrat had even held a (mundane) joint press conference on economic development. That stood in sharp contrast to the bitterly partisan transition from Jim Blanchard to the man who defeated him in 1990, John Engler, and then from Engler to Granholm 12 years later. As the state’s first female governor, Granholm had started her tenure in 2002 with some fanfare –– and had even been buzzed about as a presidential candidate (despite being born in Vancouver, Canada). But by the time her second term stumbled to a close, Granholm was badly bruised from leading the state for the better part of a decade-long recession and the near-collapse of the domestic auto industry. Michigan’s state government had shut down not once, but twice, on her watch. She wanted her legacy to be (finally) diversifying the state’s economy, as she cheered for green jobs, but everyone seemed to know it was too little, too late. It was little secret that Granholm harbored national ambitions, but she’d bet on the wrong horse in the 2008 Democratic primary –– Hillary Clinton. After Barack Obama was elected, Granholm’s name was floated for Labor, Education and Energy secretary, as well as the Supreme Court. But the Michigan governor was doomed to always be the bridesmaid, something spiteful Republicans never let her forget. So by the time Snyder’s inauguration rolled around, Granholm seemed somewhat chastened, knowing that her unpopularity had helped pad the Republican’s 19-point margin. The only small comfort was that the Democratic nominee wasn’t her hand-picked successor (Lt. Gov. John Cherry had gracefully bowed out in early 2010). The sacrificial lamb was Virg Bernero, who Fox News had anointed as “America’s Angriest Mayor” for his defense of the auto bailout, but his shouty schtick wore thin rather fast. In other words, he was nobody’s first choice. Snyder, who was still considered the heir to saintly moderate Republican Gov. William Milliken, didn’t make any rash moves with his team, tapping experienced insiders like former Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus (who Granholm dispatched in ‘02). The former Gateway CEO had promised us “Michigan 3.0” thanks to his “Tough Nerd” CPA style, running on an innocuous platform of platitudes about government transparency and competency. But even though partisan chest-beating isn’t his style, Snyder clearly regarded Granholm as a failed governor –– a poor manager who barely understood economic policy and gave us a Byzantine corporate tax structure (in reality, that had long been the case in Michigan and its latest iteration was a bipartisan effort). It really wasn’t personal. That’s just how Snyder views most people in public service (as even many Republicans who have worked with him will privately admit). In the world according to Richard Dale Snyder, everyone should have spent more time in the private sector (like him) learning how to get things done. Working in ‘Dog Years’ Naturally, Snyder had little patience for the lumbering speed of government, vowing to work in “dog years.” Only later would we come to realize just how much disdain our governor had for the entire concept of government –– crystallized in his congressional testimony on St. Patrick’s Day 2016, when he brazenly blamed “government bureaucrats” for the Flint water crisis. Then a few days later, Snyder bragged to a friendly audience of business executives, “I hope they appreciate the fact I took responsibility for some of the people that worked for me, the tragic mistakes they made, and I’m focused on fixing the problem.” I’m sure the people of Flint, who still don’t have safe drinking water, were deeply comforted by the governor’s humble response. Ah, but I’ve skipped ahead a bit. Back to 2011, when Snyder –– and Michigan power-brokers –– had such high hopes of turning the Rust Belt state around. Michiganders gave him the benefit of the doubt as he championed an aggressive agenda –– a $1.7 billion corporate tax cut (paid for mostly by a $1.4 million tax hike on individual ratepayers), education reform that’s been a boon to charter schools and, of course, the Emergency Manager law everyone now knows about because of Flint. His governorship hummed along, as he shepherded Detroit through the largest municipal bankruptcy in history –– which was supposed to be his ultimate legacy. In 2012, Snyder took some heat for signing Right to Work and a new EM bill just weeks after voters spurned the first one via referendum. But he led a charmed political life, as Michigan’s unemployment rate kept falling and the auto industry climbed back from nadir. A few scandals burbled up over his secretive “Skunk Works” education reform group and Aramark, the private company the state hired for prison food service, which was dumped after one of its employees was embroiled in a murder-for-hire plot. But Snyder was the Teflon guv. In contrast to other politicians –– who most journalists and insiders presume to be craven and almost corrupt –– everyone assumed the best of Snyder, truly taking his message of fostering Michigan’s “comeback” to heart. Even the liberal Detroit Free Press editorial board endorsed him –– twice. In 2014, he won re-election by a far closer margin than he should have, given such a stellar GOP year. But a win’s a win, and the guv’s future looked bright. Michigan’s leading conservative columnist, the Detroit News’ Nolan Finley, breathlessly announced Snyder would make a fine commander-in-chief. Most pundits weren’t quite so taken with our rambling governor, whose pitch is less-than-presidential and rather reminiscent of “Kermit the Frog.” But a vice presidential slot wasn’t out of the question, and I believed Snyder was an ideal fit for Secretary of Commerce in a potential GOP administration. He did his best to stoke speculation last spring, with allies setting up a new fund –– ironically named “Making Michigan Accountable” –– so he could travel around the country to “tell Michigan’s story” (wink). But Snyder, always awkward at political gamesmanship, declared after a few weeks that he wouldn’t run for the White House. That coincided with the biggest failure of his governorship, thus far: a $2 billion tax hike for roads that 80 percent of voters rejected in May 2015 –– the biggest defeat of any ballot initiative in 50 years. Though Snyder’s office ran shotgun on the campaign, editorial boards curiously gave him a pass on the humiliating loss. Hardheaded tea party Republicans or ignorant voters were clearly the problem, not the governor, who was just trying to do the right thing. It goes without saying that Jennifer Granholm wouldn’t have been so fortunate, however, if her tax hike had gone down in flames. There would have been scores of screeds about her lack of leadership and political ineptitude, including from me. Snyder’s predecessor, of course, had the bad luck to preside over Michigan during a deep recession, when everyone’s nerves were frayed and the governor becomes a fat target. Granholm also only had limited government experience, serving as attorney general for just four years, and was notoriously clumsy in dealing with an oft-hostile legislature. Of course, Snyder had zero government experience, but was automatically deemed competent because of his business acumen (even though Gateway wasn’t exactly a smashing capitalist success). He was also blessed with big Republican majorities for his entire tenure, which means he’d have to actively try not to get his agenda into law. But let’s not mince words here. Granholm was the state’s first female governor and there was a degree of underlying sexism. Is it a coincidence that the Republican field to replace her consisted of five conservative white guys vowing to restore order and competence to Michigan? Probably as much as it is that after eight years of our first African-American president, the 2016 GOP front-runner is boorish nativist Donald Trump. Flint Water Crisis Explodes Second terms are seldom happy ones for term-limited politicians. Granholm discovered that in 2007, as she hunkered down in a near year-long standoff with the legislature, which ultimately culminated in the first government shutdown of her tenure. Little did Snyder know that his fifth year would also become a trial by fire, bleeding well into 2016. Arrogance has a way of catching up to politicians. As most reporters were distracted with an irresistible sex scandal involving two religious-right Republican lawmakers in the summer of 2015, a major Michigan city was being poisoned. Flint’s state-appointed emergency managers had approved using the Flint River as a temporary water source to save money. Residents quickly knew something was very wrong –– the water looked, smelled and tasted like something fished out of a toilet. Parents knew their babies and toddlers were getting sick from it. The state secretly carted in water for its employees in Flint. Even General Motors stopped using the water at its engine plant because it was corroding parts. But the spokesman for the state environmental office famously told Flint residents to “relax” about their water’s safety. Still, those annoying citizens and a few nosy reporters kept yammering about it, prompting the flack to sigh in an email to a colleague, “Apparently, it’s going to be a thing now.” It was the usual suspects, however –– African-American pastors, residents already riled up over the EM law, and mostly “unfriendly” media types from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and public radio. The strategy was to minimize, ignore and spin –– which, disturbingly, worked for awhile. But after independent testing came out from both Virginia Tech University and Flint’s Hurley Hospital, the water crisis began making international headlines. Journalists didn’t hide the fact that they were utterly horrified that this could happen in a major American city in the 21st century. So how much did Rick Snyder know about this “thing” –– e.g. lead and legionella contaminating Flint’s water? Like Sgt. Schultz, Snyder claims he knew nothing until October 2015, although the report from his appointed task force casts some doubt on that assertion. What we do know is that Snyder’s top aides –– his lawyers, chief of staff and “transformation manager” (named in true corporate buzzword fashion) –– as well as two department heads, were aware of serious problems as early as October 2014. If they chose to keep the governor in the dark, that means one of two things: They regarded him as completely ineffective or they went to almost superhuman lengths to shield him from scandal. Neither is a good look, but it’s better than Snyder knowing Flint was poisoned earlier and then lying repeatedly about it. That’s something for the FBI, U.S. attorney’s office and the state attorney general to determine in their investigations. When the scandal exploded, Snyder and the state Republican Party made the crass calculation that the best defense is a good offense. They blithely blamed Obama for everything, bolstered by the Environmental Protection Agency’s errors. Various ideological allies pimped stories in right-wing media that Democrats elected in the 40-percent African-American city were really to blame (you know how those people run things into the ground, wink). And Republicans worked the national media on the angle that Democrats were shamelessly “politicizing” the crisis (especially those who are threats –– likely presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Flint Congressman Dan Kildee, the early favorite to be Michigan’s next governor). That worked for awhile until Snyder’s handpicked task force released its 116-page report in late March. The panel, which included Snyder’s former state chief medical officer and a Republican ex-Senate majority leader, laid the blame squarely on Flint’s four EMs for the biggest decision: switching to Flint River water. And yes, this was vitally important to suss out –– instead of lazily just bleating that “government at all levels” failed –– if the goal is to ensure that this health catastrophe doesn’t happen again. And let’s not forget that various law enforcement agencies are in the midst of determining criminal culpability. Running Government Like a Business Everyone wants to know how the Flint water crisis could happen. Some days, it still feels surreal to those of us in Michigan. Many folks outside the Mitten have mused that Rick Snyder doesn’t appear to be a heartless, right-wing villain (say, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker or Florida Gov. Rick Scott). Wasn’t Snyder supposed to be some nice, nerdy moderate? Here’s how I see it, based on the evidence known right now. No, Snyder and his administration didn’t purposely poison an entire city. But they absolutely put balance sheets before people in Flint. This is their governing philosophy across the board –– you can see it in their decision to privatize staff at a veterans home, where sickening cases of abuse and neglect have recently been uncovered. You can see it in their almost-exclusive obsession with the finances of Detroit Public Schools, not the rats, mold and broken heating systems that make it impossible for kids to learn. Snyder believes, as many Republicans do, that government should be run as a business. This is why he pushed to give state-appointed emergency managers near-dictatorial powers, casting aside duly elected officials (and union contracts). It’s a lot easier to run things when you’re not accountable to the people. There’s a reason why Snyder is fond of robotically referring to citizens as “customers.”

And yes, some customers are more important than others in Rick Snyder’s Michigan. CEOs of big corporations come way before angry mothers in Flint. That’s the truth, however unpleasant. It’s not a coincidence that child poverty has skyrocketed all across Michigan –– not just Detroit and Flint –– while Snyder has been the state CEO. And consider what his former economic development chief, Doug Rothwell, told Crain’s Detroit Business about the “image problem” the Flint water crisis has created: “We worked so hard to have Detroit not be a negative issue. Now, Flint puts a damper on it.”

Yes, it’s such a shame that poisoned children are ruining the governor’s carefully crafted “Michigan’s comeback” and “Pure Michigan” narratives. So it’s not surprising that even today, Snyder has steadfastly refused to meet with Flint residents. An old computer guy, he just wants to know that the malfunction is being fixed. He doesn’t want to have to look people in the eye. And no, this isn’t mere social ineptitude. Job one for Rick Snyder is restoring his own reputation. That’s why he keeps effusively tweeting about moving #FlintFWD and sending out self-congratulatory press releases, like the one touting the creation of  81 jobs with the Flint recovery effort. The people of Flint deserve so much better. Let’s go back to Snyder’s predecessor, the much-maligned, supposedly amateurish Jennifer Granholm. So would Flint have happened on her watch? As one of her frequent critics, I can say that I honestly don’t believe it would have. Granholm never would have enacted the draconian changes to the state’s emergency manager law that paved the way for this crisis. Her LG, longtime former legislative leader John Cherry, also hailed from Genesee County. He almost certainly would have put the kibosh on using the notoriously filthy Flint River for drinking water. But beyond that, Granholm’s administration wasn’t obsessed with the bottom line, but rather focused on what government should be doing for people. She was a mainline Democrat, after all. Sure, various programs didn’t always meet that ideal, as is true in any large bureaucracy, especially in a once-prosperous state that used to be able to afford some government bloat. But it’s a key difference between her administration and the one that followed it. For that reason, it’s hard to imagine Granholm’s top aides desperately trying to hide the seriousness of the crisis from both her and the public. No one likes to admit screw-ups –– especially something as dire as people being poisoned. But the Granholm administration was accustomed to dealing with big blows –– skyrocketing unemployment, the auto industry imploding, the state running out of money –– and often being blamed for things well beyond their control. It seems unlikely that officials would suddenly engage in a huge cover-up, especially one that would result in more human suffering. And if Granholm had caught wind of that, heads would have rolled. Her biggest strength is that she’s a people person, which is why she’s such a captivating campaigner. But for whatever people have said about her, there is an underlying humanity and decency. When a big Electrolux plant closed in the west Michigan hamlet of Greenville in 2006, she went to the company picnic dubbed “The Last Supper” and shook every hand. It’s striking to think about that when Rick Snyder can’t be bothered to talk to parents whose children will probably have permanent brain damage.

So it’s somewhat ironic that five years after leaving the governor’s mansion to snickers about her ghastly legacy, Granholm is poised for a second act. She’s well-positioned to be in a Democratic presidential cabinet, should Hillary Clinton be elected, or to take over as Democratic National Committee chair. Michigan Republicans still deploy Granholm’s name as a punchline, but it looks like she’ll have the last laugh.

Rick Snyder probably won’t be that lucky. He doesn’t talk about “dog years” anymore. He’s no longer known as the man who saved Detroit (new Mayor Mike Duggan has shrewdly stepped into the void, and will retroactively be remembered as such). While next-door Gov. John Kasich was winning the Ohio Republican presidential primary on March 16, Snyder was prepping to get grilled by Congress. Snyder is now known as the governor who poisoned Flint. It goes without saying that the water crisis will overshadow anything else Snyder tries to accomplish before his final term ends in 2018. He’s spent over $1 million on lawyers defending himself over Flint already –– and has arrogantly asked taxpayers to pay for it. It’s not out of the question that the governor will face criminal charges. But even if he escapes that nightmare scenario, Snyder’s reputation will be permanently tarnished. He’s said he wanted his next career to be in academia –– presumably at his alma mater, the University of Michigan –– but that seems unlikely at this point. Snyder won’t leave the governorship without options, of course; he’ll have business opportunities at his disposal and already has a sizable personal fortune to fall back on. But he may just leave the job more unpopular than his predecessor –– which would be saying something. My, how the mighty have fallen.

When Rick Snyder took the reigns from Jennifer Granholm on Jan. 1, 2011, there was a certain smugness hanging in Michigan’s raw winter air.

The changing of the guard had been fairly pleasant –– the Republican and Democrat had even held a (mundane) joint press conference on economic development. That stood in sharp contrast to the bitterly partisan transition from Jim Blanchard to the man who defeated him in 1990, John Engler, and then from Engler to Granholm 12 years later. As the state’s first female governor, Granholm had started her tenure in 2002 with some fanfare –– and had even been buzzed about as a presidential candidate (despite being born in Vancouver, Canada). But by the time her second term stumbled to a close, Granholm was badly bruised from leading the state for the better part of a decade-long recession and the near-collapse of the domestic auto industry. Michigan’s state government had shut down not once, but twice, on her watch. She wanted her legacy to be (finally) diversifying the state’s economy, as she cheered for green jobs, but everyone seemed to know it was too little, too late. It was little secret that Granholm harbored national ambitions, but she’d bet on the wrong horse in the 2008 Democratic primary –– Hillary Clinton. After Barack Obama was elected, Granholm’s name was floated for Labor, Education and Energy secretary, as well as the Supreme Court. But the Michigan governor was doomed to always be the bridesmaid, something spiteful Republicans never let her forget. So by the time Snyder’s inauguration rolled around, Granholm seemed somewhat chastened, knowing that her unpopularity had helped pad the Republican’s 19-point margin. The only small comfort was that the Democratic nominee wasn’t her hand-picked successor (Lt. Gov. John Cherry had gracefully bowed out in early 2010). The sacrificial lamb was Virg Bernero, who Fox News had anointed as “America’s Angriest Mayor” for his defense of the auto bailout, but his shouty schtick wore thin rather fast. In other words, he was nobody’s first choice. Snyder, who was still considered the heir to saintly moderate Republican Gov. William Milliken, didn’t make any rash moves with his team, tapping experienced insiders like former Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus (who Granholm dispatched in ‘02). The former Gateway CEO had promised us “Michigan 3.0” thanks to his “Tough Nerd” CPA style, running on an innocuous platform of platitudes about government transparency and competency. But even though partisan chest-beating isn’t his style, Snyder clearly regarded Granholm as a failed governor –– a poor manager who barely understood economic policy and gave us a Byzantine corporate tax structure (in reality, that had long been the case in Michigan and its latest iteration was a bipartisan effort). It really wasn’t personal. That’s just how Snyder views most people in public service (as even many Republicans who have worked with him will privately admit). In the world according to Richard Dale Snyder, everyone should have spent more time in the private sector (like him) learning how to get things done. Working in ‘Dog Years’ Naturally, Snyder had little patience for the lumbering speed of government, vowing to work in “dog years.” Only later would we come to realize just how much disdain our governor had for the entire concept of government –– crystallized in his congressional testimony on St. Patrick’s Day 2016, when he brazenly blamed “government bureaucrats” for the Flint water crisis. Then a few days later, Snyder bragged to a friendly audience of business executives, “I hope they appreciate the fact I took responsibility for some of the people that worked for me, the tragic mistakes they made, and I’m focused on fixing the problem.” I’m sure the people of Flint, who still don’t have safe drinking water, were deeply comforted by the governor’s humble response. Ah, but I’ve skipped ahead a bit. Back to 2011, when Snyder –– and Michigan power-brokers –– had such high hopes of turning the Rust Belt state around. Michiganders gave him the benefit of the doubt as he championed an aggressive agenda –– a $1.7 billion corporate tax cut (paid for mostly by a $1.4 million tax hike on individual ratepayers), education reform that’s been a boon to charter schools and, of course, the Emergency Manager law everyone now knows about because of Flint. His governorship hummed along, as he shepherded Detroit through the largest municipal bankruptcy in history –– which was supposed to be his ultimate legacy. In 2012, Snyder took some heat for signing Right to Work and a new EM bill just weeks after voters spurned the first one via referendum. But he led a charmed political life, as Michigan’s unemployment rate kept falling and the auto industry climbed back from nadir. A few scandals burbled up over his secretive “Skunk Works” education reform group and Aramark, the private company the state hired for prison food service, which was dumped after one of its employees was embroiled in a murder-for-hire plot. But Snyder was the Teflon guv. In contrast to other politicians –– who most journalists and insiders presume to be craven and almost corrupt –– everyone assumed the best of Snyder, truly taking his message of fostering Michigan’s “comeback” to heart. Even the liberal Detroit Free Press editorial board endorsed him –– twice. In 2014, he won re-election by a far closer margin than he should have, given such a stellar GOP year. But a win’s a win, and the guv’s future looked bright. Michigan’s leading conservative columnist, the Detroit News’ Nolan Finley, breathlessly announced Snyder would make a fine commander-in-chief. Most pundits weren’t quite so taken with our rambling governor, whose pitch is less-than-presidential and rather reminiscent of “Kermit the Frog.” But a vice presidential slot wasn’t out of the question, and I believed Snyder was an ideal fit for Secretary of Commerce in a potential GOP administration. He did his best to stoke speculation last spring, with allies setting up a new fund –– ironically named “Making Michigan Accountable” –– so he could travel around the country to “tell Michigan’s story” (wink). But Snyder, always awkward at political gamesmanship, declared after a few weeks that he wouldn’t run for the White House. That coincided with the biggest failure of his governorship, thus far: a $2 billion tax hike for roads that 80 percent of voters rejected in May 2015 –– the biggest defeat of any ballot initiative in 50 years. Though Snyder’s office ran shotgun on the campaign, editorial boards curiously gave him a pass on the humiliating loss. Hardheaded tea party Republicans or ignorant voters were clearly the problem, not the governor, who was just trying to do the right thing. It goes without saying that Jennifer Granholm wouldn’t have been so fortunate, however, if her tax hike had gone down in flames. There would have been scores of screeds about her lack of leadership and political ineptitude, including from me. Snyder’s predecessor, of course, had the bad luck to preside over Michigan during a deep recession, when everyone’s nerves were frayed and the governor becomes a fat target. Granholm also only had limited government experience, serving as attorney general for just four years, and was notoriously clumsy in dealing with an oft-hostile legislature. Of course, Snyder had zero government experience, but was automatically deemed competent because of his business acumen (even though Gateway wasn’t exactly a smashing capitalist success). He was also blessed with big Republican majorities for his entire tenure, which means he’d have to actively try not to get his agenda into law. But let’s not mince words here. Granholm was the state’s first female governor and there was a degree of underlying sexism. Is it a coincidence that the Republican field to replace her consisted of five conservative white guys vowing to restore order and competence to Michigan? Probably as much as it is that after eight years of our first African-American president, the 2016 GOP front-runner is boorish nativist Donald Trump. Flint Water Crisis Explodes Second terms are seldom happy ones for term-limited politicians. Granholm discovered that in 2007, as she hunkered down in a near year-long standoff with the legislature, which ultimately culminated in the first government shutdown of her tenure. Little did Snyder know that his fifth year would also become a trial by fire, bleeding well into 2016. Arrogance has a way of catching up to politicians. As most reporters were distracted with an irresistible sex scandal involving two religious-right Republican lawmakers in the summer of 2015, a major Michigan city was being poisoned. Flint’s state-appointed emergency managers had approved using the Flint River as a temporary water source to save money. Residents quickly knew something was very wrong –– the water looked, smelled and tasted like something fished out of a toilet. Parents knew their babies and toddlers were getting sick from it. The state secretly carted in water for its employees in Flint. Even General Motors stopped using the water at its engine plant because it was corroding parts. But the spokesman for the state environmental office famously told Flint residents to “relax” about their water’s safety. Still, those annoying citizens and a few nosy reporters kept yammering about it, prompting the flack to sigh in an email to a colleague, “Apparently, it’s going to be a thing now.” It was the usual suspects, however –– African-American pastors, residents already riled up over the EM law, and mostly “unfriendly” media types from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and public radio. The strategy was to minimize, ignore and spin –– which, disturbingly, worked for awhile. But after independent testing came out from both Virginia Tech University and Flint’s Hurley Hospital, the water crisis began making international headlines. Journalists didn’t hide the fact that they were utterly horrified that this could happen in a major American city in the 21st century. So how much did Rick Snyder know about this “thing” –– e.g. lead and legionella contaminating Flint’s water? Like Sgt. Schultz, Snyder claims he knew nothing until October 2015, although the report from his appointed task force casts some doubt on that assertion. What we do know is that Snyder’s top aides –– his lawyers, chief of staff and “transformation manager” (named in true corporate buzzword fashion) –– as well as two department heads, were aware of serious problems as early as October 2014. If they chose to keep the governor in the dark, that means one of two things: They regarded him as completely ineffective or they went to almost superhuman lengths to shield him from scandal. Neither is a good look, but it’s better than Snyder knowing Flint was poisoned earlier and then lying repeatedly about it. That’s something for the FBI, U.S. attorney’s office and the state attorney general to determine in their investigations. When the scandal exploded, Snyder and the state Republican Party made the crass calculation that the best defense is a good offense. They blithely blamed Obama for everything, bolstered by the Environmental Protection Agency’s errors. Various ideological allies pimped stories in right-wing media that Democrats elected in the 40-percent African-American city were really to blame (you know how those people run things into the ground, wink). And Republicans worked the national media on the angle that Democrats were shamelessly “politicizing” the crisis (especially those who are threats –– likely presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Flint Congressman Dan Kildee, the early favorite to be Michigan’s next governor). That worked for awhile until Snyder’s handpicked task force released its 116-page report in late March. The panel, which included Snyder’s former state chief medical officer and a Republican ex-Senate majority leader, laid the blame squarely on Flint’s four EMs for the biggest decision: switching to Flint River water. And yes, this was vitally important to suss out –– instead of lazily just bleating that “government at all levels” failed –– if the goal is to ensure that this health catastrophe doesn’t happen again. And let’s not forget that various law enforcement agencies are in the midst of determining criminal culpability. Running Government Like a Business Everyone wants to know how the Flint water crisis could happen. Some days, it still feels surreal to those of us in Michigan. Many folks outside the Mitten have mused that Rick Snyder doesn’t appear to be a heartless, right-wing villain (say, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker or Florida Gov. Rick Scott). Wasn’t Snyder supposed to be some nice, nerdy moderate? Here’s how I see it, based on the evidence known right now. No, Snyder and his administration didn’t purposely poison an entire city. But they absolutely put balance sheets before people in Flint. This is their governing philosophy across the board –– you can see it in their decision to privatize staff at a veterans home, where sickening cases of abuse and neglect have recently been uncovered. You can see it in their almost-exclusive obsession with the finances of Detroit Public Schools, not the rats, mold and broken heating systems that make it impossible for kids to learn. Snyder believes, as many Republicans do, that government should be run as a business. This is why he pushed to give state-appointed emergency managers near-dictatorial powers, casting aside duly elected officials (and union contracts). It’s a lot easier to run things when you’re not accountable to the people. There’s a reason why Snyder is fond of robotically referring to citizens as “customers.”

And yes, some customers are more important than others in Rick Snyder’s Michigan. CEOs of big corporations come way before angry mothers in Flint. That’s the truth, however unpleasant. It’s not a coincidence that child poverty has skyrocketed all across Michigan –– not just Detroit and Flint –– while Snyder has been the state CEO. And consider what his former economic development chief, Doug Rothwell, told Crain’s Detroit Business about the “image problem” the Flint water crisis has created: “We worked so hard to have Detroit not be a negative issue. Now, Flint puts a damper on it.”

Yes, it’s such a shame that poisoned children are ruining the governor’s carefully crafted “Michigan’s comeback” and “Pure Michigan” narratives. So it’s not surprising that even today, Snyder has steadfastly refused to meet with Flint residents. An old computer guy, he just wants to know that the malfunction is being fixed. He doesn’t want to have to look people in the eye. And no, this isn’t mere social ineptitude. Job one for Rick Snyder is restoring his own reputation. That’s why he keeps effusively tweeting about moving #FlintFWD and sending out self-congratulatory press releases, like the one touting the creation of  81 jobs with the Flint recovery effort. The people of Flint deserve so much better. Let’s go back to Snyder’s predecessor, the much-maligned, supposedly amateurish Jennifer Granholm. So would Flint have happened on her watch? As one of her frequent critics, I can say that I honestly don’t believe it would have. Granholm never would have enacted the draconian changes to the state’s emergency manager law that paved the way for this crisis. Her LG, longtime former legislative leader John Cherry, also hailed from Genesee County. He almost certainly would have put the kibosh on using the notoriously filthy Flint River for drinking water. But beyond that, Granholm’s administration wasn’t obsessed with the bottom line, but rather focused on what government should be doing for people. She was a mainline Democrat, after all. Sure, various programs didn’t always meet that ideal, as is true in any large bureaucracy, especially in a once-prosperous state that used to be able to afford some government bloat. But it’s a key difference between her administration and the one that followed it. For that reason, it’s hard to imagine Granholm’s top aides desperately trying to hide the seriousness of the crisis from both her and the public. No one likes to admit screw-ups –– especially something as dire as people being poisoned. But the Granholm administration was accustomed to dealing with big blows –– skyrocketing unemployment, the auto industry imploding, the state running out of money –– and often being blamed for things well beyond their control. It seems unlikely that officials would suddenly engage in a huge cover-up, especially one that would result in more human suffering. And if Granholm had caught wind of that, heads would have rolled. Her biggest strength is that she’s a people person, which is why she’s such a captivating campaigner. But for whatever people have said about her, there is an underlying humanity and decency. When a big Electrolux plant closed in the west Michigan hamlet of Greenville in 2006, she went to the company picnic dubbed “The Last Supper” and shook every hand. It’s striking to think about that when Rick Snyder can’t be bothered to talk to parents whose children will probably have permanent brain damage.

So it’s somewhat ironic that five years after leaving the governor’s mansion to snickers about her ghastly legacy, Granholm is poised for a second act. She’s well-positioned to be in a Democratic presidential cabinet, should Hillary Clinton be elected, or to take over as Democratic National Committee chair. Michigan Republicans still deploy Granholm’s name as a punchline, but it looks like she’ll have the last laugh.

Rick Snyder probably won’t be that lucky. He doesn’t talk about “dog years” anymore. He’s no longer known as the man who saved Detroit (new Mayor Mike Duggan has shrewdly stepped into the void, and will retroactively be remembered as such). While next-door Gov. John Kasich was winning the Ohio Republican presidential primary on March 16, Snyder was prepping to get grilled by Congress. Snyder is now known as the governor who poisoned Flint. It goes without saying that the water crisis will overshadow anything else Snyder tries to accomplish before his final term ends in 2018. He’s spent over $1 million on lawyers defending himself over Flint already –– and has arrogantly asked taxpayers to pay for it. It’s not out of the question that the governor will face criminal charges. But even if he escapes that nightmare scenario, Snyder’s reputation will be permanently tarnished. He’s said he wanted his next career to be in academia –– presumably at his alma mater, the University of Michigan –– but that seems unlikely at this point. Snyder won’t leave the governorship without options, of course; he’ll have business opportunities at his disposal and already has a sizable personal fortune to fall back on. But he may just leave the job more unpopular than his predecessor –– which would be saying something. My, how the mighty have fallen.

When Rick Snyder took the reigns from Jennifer Granholm on Jan. 1, 2011, there was a certain smugness hanging in Michigan’s raw winter air.

The changing of the guard had been fairly pleasant –– the Republican and Democrat had even held a (mundane) joint press conference on economic development. That stood in sharp contrast to the bitterly partisan transition from Jim Blanchard to the man who defeated him in 1990, John Engler, and then from Engler to Granholm 12 years later. As the state’s first female governor, Granholm had started her tenure in 2002 with some fanfare –– and had even been buzzed about as a presidential candidate (despite being born in Vancouver, Canada). But by the time her second term stumbled to a close, Granholm was badly bruised from leading the state for the better part of a decade-long recession and the near-collapse of the domestic auto industry. Michigan’s state government had shut down not once, but twice, on her watch. She wanted her legacy to be (finally) diversifying the state’s economy, as she cheered for green jobs, but everyone seemed to know it was too little, too late. It was little secret that Granholm harbored national ambitions, but she’d bet on the wrong horse in the 2008 Democratic primary –– Hillary Clinton. After Barack Obama was elected, Granholm’s name was floated for Labor, Education and Energy secretary, as well as the Supreme Court. But the Michigan governor was doomed to always be the bridesmaid, something spiteful Republicans never let her forget. So by the time Snyder’s inauguration rolled around, Granholm seemed somewhat chastened, knowing that her unpopularity had helped pad the Republican’s 19-point margin. The only small comfort was that the Democratic nominee wasn’t her hand-picked successor (Lt. Gov. John Cherry had gracefully bowed out in early 2010). The sacrificial lamb was Virg Bernero, who Fox News had anointed as “America’s Angriest Mayor” for his defense of the auto bailout, but his shouty schtick wore thin rather fast. In other words, he was nobody’s first choice. Snyder, who was still considered the heir to saintly moderate Republican Gov. William Milliken, didn’t make any rash moves with his team, tapping experienced insiders like former Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus (who Granholm dispatched in ‘02). The former Gateway CEO had promised us “Michigan 3.0” thanks to his “Tough Nerd” CPA style, running on an innocuous platform of platitudes about government transparency and competency. But even though partisan chest-beating isn’t his style, Snyder clearly regarded Granholm as a failed governor –– a poor manager who barely understood economic policy and gave us a Byzantine corporate tax structure (in reality, that had long been the case in Michigan and its latest iteration was a bipartisan effort). It really wasn’t personal. That’s just how Snyder views most people in public service (as even many Republicans who have worked with him will privately admit). In the world according to Richard Dale Snyder, everyone should have spent more time in the private sector (like him) learning how to get things done. Working in ‘Dog Years’ Naturally, Snyder had little patience for the lumbering speed of government, vowing to work in “dog years.” Only later would we come to realize just how much disdain our governor had for the entire concept of government –– crystallized in his congressional testimony on St. Patrick’s Day 2016, when he brazenly blamed “government bureaucrats” for the Flint water crisis. Then a few days later, Snyder bragged to a friendly audience of business executives, “I hope they appreciate the fact I took responsibility for some of the people that worked for me, the tragic mistakes they made, and I’m focused on fixing the problem.” I’m sure the people of Flint, who still don’t have safe drinking water, were deeply comforted by the governor’s humble response. Ah, but I’ve skipped ahead a bit. Back to 2011, when Snyder –– and Michigan power-brokers –– had such high hopes of turning the Rust Belt state around. Michiganders gave him the benefit of the doubt as he championed an aggressive agenda –– a $1.7 billion corporate tax cut (paid for mostly by a $1.4 million tax hike on individual ratepayers), education reform that’s been a boon to charter schools and, of course, the Emergency Manager law everyone now knows about because of Flint. His governorship hummed along, as he shepherded Detroit through the largest municipal bankruptcy in history –– which was supposed to be his ultimate legacy. In 2012, Snyder took some heat for signing Right to Work and a new EM bill just weeks after voters spurned the first one via referendum. But he led a charmed political life, as Michigan’s unemployment rate kept falling and the auto industry climbed back from nadir. A few scandals burbled up over his secretive “Skunk Works” education reform group and Aramark, the private company the state hired for prison food service, which was dumped after one of its employees was embroiled in a murder-for-hire plot. But Snyder was the Teflon guv. In contrast to other politicians –– who most journalists and insiders presume to be craven and almost corrupt –– everyone assumed the best of Snyder, truly taking his message of fostering Michigan’s “comeback” to heart. Even the liberal Detroit Free Press editorial board endorsed him –– twice. In 2014, he won re-election by a far closer margin than he should have, given such a stellar GOP year. But a win’s a win, and the guv’s future looked bright. Michigan’s leading conservative columnist, the Detroit News’ Nolan Finley, breathlessly announced Snyder would make a fine commander-in-chief. Most pundits weren’t quite so taken with our rambling governor, whose pitch is less-than-presidential and rather reminiscent of “Kermit the Frog.” But a vice presidential slot wasn’t out of the question, and I believed Snyder was an ideal fit for Secretary of Commerce in a potential GOP administration. He did his best to stoke speculation last spring, with allies setting up a new fund –– ironically named “Making Michigan Accountable” –– so he could travel around the country to “tell Michigan’s story” (wink). But Snyder, always awkward at political gamesmanship, declared after a few weeks that he wouldn’t run for the White House. That coincided with the biggest failure of his governorship, thus far: a $2 billion tax hike for roads that 80 percent of voters rejected in May 2015 –– the biggest defeat of any ballot initiative in 50 years. Though Snyder’s office ran shotgun on the campaign, editorial boards curiously gave him a pass on the humiliating loss. Hardheaded tea party Republicans or ignorant voters were clearly the problem, not the governor, who was just trying to do the right thing. It goes without saying that Jennifer Granholm wouldn’t have been so fortunate, however, if her tax hike had gone down in flames. There would have been scores of screeds about her lack of leadership and political ineptitude, including from me. Snyder’s predecessor, of course, had the bad luck to preside over Michigan during a deep recession, when everyone’s nerves were frayed and the governor becomes a fat target. Granholm also only had limited government experience, serving as attorney general for just four years, and was notoriously clumsy in dealing with an oft-hostile legislature. Of course, Snyder had zero government experience, but was automatically deemed competent because of his business acumen (even though Gateway wasn’t exactly a smashing capitalist success). He was also blessed with big Republican majorities for his entire tenure, which means he’d have to actively try not to get his agenda into law. But let’s not mince words here. Granholm was the state’s first female governor and there was a degree of underlying sexism. Is it a coincidence that the Republican field to replace her consisted of five conservative white guys vowing to restore order and competence to Michigan? Probably as much as it is that after eight years of our first African-American president, the 2016 GOP front-runner is boorish nativist Donald Trump. Flint Water Crisis Explodes Second terms are seldom happy ones for term-limited politicians. Granholm discovered that in 2007, as she hunkered down in a near year-long standoff with the legislature, which ultimately culminated in the first government shutdown of her tenure. Little did Snyder know that his fifth year would also become a trial by fire, bleeding well into 2016. Arrogance has a way of catching up to politicians. As most reporters were distracted with an irresistible sex scandal involving two religious-right Republican lawmakers in the summer of 2015, a major Michigan city was being poisoned. Flint’s state-appointed emergency managers had approved using the Flint River as a temporary water source to save money. Residents quickly knew something was very wrong –– the water looked, smelled and tasted like something fished out of a toilet. Parents knew their babies and toddlers were getting sick from it. The state secretly carted in water for its employees in Flint. Even General Motors stopped using the water at its engine plant because it was corroding parts. But the spokesman for the state environmental office famously told Flint residents to “relax” about their water’s safety. Still, those annoying citizens and a few nosy reporters kept yammering about it, prompting the flack to sigh in an email to a colleague, “Apparently, it’s going to be a thing now.” It was the usual suspects, however –– African-American pastors, residents already riled up over the EM law, and mostly “unfriendly” media types from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and public radio. The strategy was to minimize, ignore and spin –– which, disturbingly, worked for awhile. But after independent testing came out from both Virginia Tech University and Flint’s Hurley Hospital, the water crisis began making international headlines. Journalists didn’t hide the fact that they were utterly horrified that this could happen in a major American city in the 21st century. So how much did Rick Snyder know about this “thing” –– e.g. lead and legionella contaminating Flint’s water? Like Sgt. Schultz, Snyder claims he knew nothing until October 2015, although the report from his appointed task force casts some doubt on that assertion. What we do know is that Snyder’s top aides –– his lawyers, chief of staff and “transformation manager” (named in true corporate buzzword fashion) –– as well as two department heads, were aware of serious problems as early as October 2014. If they chose to keep the governor in the dark, that means one of two things: They regarded him as completely ineffective or they went to almost superhuman lengths to shield him from scandal. Neither is a good look, but it’s better than Snyder knowing Flint was poisoned earlier and then lying repeatedly about it. That’s something for the FBI, U.S. attorney’s office and the state attorney general to determine in their investigations. When the scandal exploded, Snyder and the state Republican Party made the crass calculation that the best defense is a good offense. They blithely blamed Obama for everything, bolstered by the Environmental Protection Agency’s errors. Various ideological allies pimped stories in right-wing media that Democrats elected in the 40-percent African-American city were really to blame (you know how those people run things into the ground, wink). And Republicans worked the national media on the angle that Democrats were shamelessly “politicizing” the crisis (especially those who are threats –– likely presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Flint Congressman Dan Kildee, the early favorite to be Michigan’s next governor). That worked for awhile until Snyder’s handpicked task force released its 116-page report in late March. The panel, which included Snyder’s former state chief medical officer and a Republican ex-Senate majority leader, laid the blame squarely on Flint’s four EMs for the biggest decision: switching to Flint River water. And yes, this was vitally important to suss out –– instead of lazily just bleating that “government at all levels” failed –– if the goal is to ensure that this health catastrophe doesn’t happen again. And let’s not forget that various law enforcement agencies are in the midst of determining criminal culpability. Running Government Like a Business Everyone wants to know how the Flint water crisis could happen. Some days, it still feels surreal to those of us in Michigan. Many folks outside the Mitten have mused that Rick Snyder doesn’t appear to be a heartless, right-wing villain (say, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker or Florida Gov. Rick Scott). Wasn’t Snyder supposed to be some nice, nerdy moderate? Here’s how I see it, based on the evidence known right now. No, Snyder and his administration didn’t purposely poison an entire city. But they absolutely put balance sheets before people in Flint. This is their governing philosophy across the board –– you can see it in their decision to privatize staff at a veterans home, where sickening cases of abuse and neglect have recently been uncovered. You can see it in their almost-exclusive obsession with the finances of Detroit Public Schools, not the rats, mold and broken heating systems that make it impossible for kids to learn. Snyder believes, as many Republicans do, that government should be run as a business. This is why he pushed to give state-appointed emergency managers near-dictatorial powers, casting aside duly elected officials (and union contracts). It’s a lot easier to run things when you’re not accountable to the people. There’s a reason why Snyder is fond of robotically referring to citizens as “customers.”

And yes, some customers are more important than others in Rick Snyder’s Michigan. CEOs of big corporations come way before angry mothers in Flint. That’s the truth, however unpleasant. It’s not a coincidence that child poverty has skyrocketed all across Michigan –– not just Detroit and Flint –– while Snyder has been the state CEO. And consider what his former economic development chief, Doug Rothwell, told Crain’s Detroit Business about the “image problem” the Flint water crisis has created: “We worked so hard to have Detroit not be a negative issue. Now, Flint puts a damper on it.”

Yes, it’s such a shame that poisoned children are ruining the governor’s carefully crafted “Michigan’s comeback” and “Pure Michigan” narratives. So it’s not surprising that even today, Snyder has steadfastly refused to meet with Flint residents. An old computer guy, he just wants to know that the malfunction is being fixed. He doesn’t want to have to look people in the eye. And no, this isn’t mere social ineptitude. Job one for Rick Snyder is restoring his own reputation. That’s why he keeps effusively tweeting about moving #FlintFWD and sending out self-congratulatory press releases, like the one touting the creation of  81 jobs with the Flint recovery effort. The people of Flint deserve so much better. Let’s go back to Snyder’s predecessor, the much-maligned, supposedly amateurish Jennifer Granholm. So would Flint have happened on her watch? As one of her frequent critics, I can say that I honestly don’t believe it would have. Granholm never would have enacted the draconian changes to the state’s emergency manager law that paved the way for this crisis. Her LG, longtime former legislative leader John Cherry, also hailed from Genesee County. He almost certainly would have put the kibosh on using the notoriously filthy Flint River for drinking water. But beyond that, Granholm’s administration wasn’t obsessed with the bottom line, but rather focused on what government should be doing for people. She was a mainline Democrat, after all. Sure, various programs didn’t always meet that ideal, as is true in any large bureaucracy, especially in a once-prosperous state that used to be able to afford some government bloat. But it’s a key difference between her administration and the one that followed it. For that reason, it’s hard to imagine Granholm’s top aides desperately trying to hide the seriousness of the crisis from both her and the public. No one likes to admit screw-ups –– especially something as dire as people being poisoned. But the Granholm administration was accustomed to dealing with big blows –– skyrocketing unemployment, the auto industry imploding, the state running out of money –– and often being blamed for things well beyond their control. It seems unlikely that officials would suddenly engage in a huge cover-up, especially one that would result in more human suffering. And if Granholm had caught wind of that, heads would have rolled. Her biggest strength is that she’s a people person, which is why she’s such a captivating campaigner. But for whatever people have said about her, there is an underlying humanity and decency. When a big Electrolux plant closed in the west Michigan hamlet of Greenville in 2006, she went to the company picnic dubbed “The Last Supper” and shook every hand. It’s striking to think about that when Rick Snyder can’t be bothered to talk to parents whose children will probably have permanent brain damage.

So it’s somewhat ironic that five years after leaving the governor’s mansion to snickers about her ghastly legacy, Granholm is poised for a second act. She’s well-positioned to be in a Democratic presidential cabinet, should Hillary Clinton be elected, or to take over as Democratic National Committee chair. Michigan Republicans still deploy Granholm’s name as a punchline, but it looks like she’ll have the last laugh.

Rick Snyder probably won’t be that lucky. He doesn’t talk about “dog years” anymore. He’s no longer known as the man who saved Detroit (new Mayor Mike Duggan has shrewdly stepped into the void, and will retroactively be remembered as such). While next-door Gov. John Kasich was winning the Ohio Republican presidential primary on March 16, Snyder was prepping to get grilled by Congress. Snyder is now known as the governor who poisoned Flint. It goes without saying that the water crisis will overshadow anything else Snyder tries to accomplish before his final term ends in 2018. He’s spent over $1 million on lawyers defending himself over Flint already –– and has arrogantly asked taxpayers to pay for it. It’s not out of the question that the governor will face criminal charges. But even if he escapes that nightmare scenario, Snyder’s reputation will be permanently tarnished. He’s said he wanted his next career to be in academia –– presumably at his alma mater, the University of Michigan –– but that seems unlikely at this point. Snyder won’t leave the governorship without options, of course; he’ll have business opportunities at his disposal and already has a sizable personal fortune to fall back on. But he may just leave the job more unpopular than his predecessor –– which would be saying something. My, how the mighty have fallen.

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How I friended Oprah Winfrey and Stephen Colbert: Zach Anner on comedy and cerebral palsy (“The sexiest of the palsies”)

“So, what does Oprah smell like?” People ask me this question all the time, because in the fall of 2010 I got to sit across from Oprah Winfrey for twenty minutes. It was during the second-to-last episode of Your OWN Show as part of a press junket challenge where the final three contestants were interviewed by TV Guide and Entertainment Tonight, and then at the end were surprised by the queen herself for a one-on-one pleasant chat/most important job interview of our lives. The only difference between me and the other two contestants vying for their own shows was that I was not surprised. When Oprah came up behind me, tapped me on the shoulder, and said warmly, “Hey, fancy meeting you here!” my response was a casual and generally muppety, “Hellooo! I was expecting you!” I’d put two and two together that this was how the day was going to end as soon as I saw that producers who normally wore jeans and an eternal five o’clock shadow were now clean-shaven, wearing sport coats, and whispering about somebody with the code name “Big Bird.” Big Bird and I hit it off instantly, probably because I didn’t lean in to sniff her wrist as soon as we met. She asked me a question I’d gotten used to answering over the past couple of months since my audition video had gone viral. “When did you realize that you were different?” “Well, I knew I was in a wheelchair, obviously,” I quipped. “They didn’t shield that from me!” Oprah laughed, but the truth is that I’d lived with CP my entire life and I’d rarely had to articulate my feelings about it—that is, until I was inadvertently thrust into the role of advocate and spokesperson for everyone with a physical disability. I’d wanted to be famous for as long as I could remember. First, I thought I’d be an actor. Growing up in the early ’90s gave me great hope that the advent of CGI would one day allow me to play the action hero Bruce Willis/Harrison Ford-type roles, with a pair of fully functioning running and jumping legs inserted during post-production. When I was five years old I auditioned for the role of Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol. Seeing as I was the only applicant who was both tiny and crippled, I thought I was a shoe-in for the part, but I didn’t even get a callback. Undeterred, I continued to audition for school plays and musicals with zero success. I chalked up my lackluster career to a lack of mobility until college, when I realized the truth—I’m just a really, really shitty actor. The only two characters I can play convincingly are myself and a dumber and sweeter version of myself. So sometime in early adulthood, I consciously stopped attempting to act. I decided instead to hone my skills as an on-camera personality rather than holding out for computer-generated movie stardom. If I was gonna make it in entertainment, I was going to have to do it on the virtue of my charisma alone. I just had to find my voice and my angle to break in. I knew that cerebral palsy would probably hinder my leading man status, but I’d be lying if I didn’t also say I recognized that it set me apart. When I was filming my audition video, I checked my friend Aaron’s opening frame and gave him a direction I would normally avoid: “Go wider. They’ve gotta see the wheelchair right away.” I knew it would be off-putting to just see a guy with a lazy eye flailing his arms around like E.T. fleeing the CIA. But my instincts told me that if I showed the wheelchair and then went straight for the funny, I’d be more relatable than if I tried to hide it, and if I did this right, then by the end of the video my electric wheelchair and erratic movement would just be background noise. Over the years, I learned that in my career, unlike in life, sometimes my wheelchair is its own automatic door opener. I was able to win the OWN competition by applying one simple principle: be funny, and admit you suck before anyone else can call you out on it. In other words, make the narrative of your failure a comedy. I knew I hit the mark when John Mayer posted a vlog about me on his blog, saying that while watching my video, “the chair simply disappears,” which means that to the singer of “Your Body Is a Wonderland,” my body was not the focus, or, if taken literally, it means I can levitate. Both things are pretty cool. John Mayer even made good on a promise to write the theme song for Rollin’ with Zach and posed with me for goofy pictures backstage at a concert in Buffalo. But the storm of media attention surrounding my video brought with it some things that were far less comfortable than having a rock star sit on my lap. I was given a title I wasn’t prepared to own: Disabled Celebrity. I think we can all agree that Peter Dinklage is the best (technically) disabled person there is. When I was a kid, I didn’t have any dwarves to look up to, let alone any role models in wheelchairs. When people ask me who my heroes are, I never know how to answer that question because all the people I admired growing up were comedians and filmmakers and none of them had physical challenges. And though as a six-year-old in a tiny red wheelchair I could see virtue in FDR’s New Deal, Roosevelt’s reported womanizing barred him from idol status in my mind. Today the landscape has changed. People with Down syndrome star in movies, pop stars pretending to be in wheelchairs are on sitcoms, and, for the first time, people kinda maybe know what cerebral palsy is. Josh Blue won Last Comic Standing, and RJ Mitte became a household name by being the worst character on one of the best shows of all time. People with disabilities are more mainstream than ever. But there’s still one big problem that I see. Usually, the disability still comes first. Even on brilliant shows like Breaking Bad, where smaller ancillary characters are given emotional scenes and complex arcs, the guy with CP is used primarily as a device to make Walter White more sympathetic. Isn’t this drug kingpin’s life difficult? He has a son with a disability! RJ Mitte might be a good actor, but he’s given absolutely nothing to do besides whine and eat cereal. They only show his parents reacting to the prejudices he faces and they never give us any story lines about how he actually goes through life. Where are the episodes of Breaking Bad where Walt Jr. gets drunk at prom, or where he gets caught smoking pot with friends or masturbating into a meth beaker? So many missed opportunities to flesh this kid out! The reason we never see what he does or how he feels about anything is because characters with disabilities on television aren’t really portrayed as people. They’re just around to make you feel either good or bad by virtue of how other characters in the show respond to them. In 2008, when a show I was doing at the University of Texas called The Wingmen started getting some attention, a Hollywood agent sent me a script that he thought I’d be perfect for. It was a network sitcom about a crappy after-school chorus called Glee. To get me the audition, the agent had enthusiastically lied, “You need a guy in a wheelchair who’s a great singer? I got ’im!” I may have looked the part, but I can carry a tune about as well as I can carry an unborn baby. I was a horrible actor, but nevertheless, I put myself on tape reading lines and singing a rousingly pitchy rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” In the script, the character of Arty is locked in a porta-potty by cruel football players, only to be rescued by Finn, the quarterback with a heart of gold. Once again, the guy in the wheelchair is the helpless one. In this sitcom universe, the majority of the world is populated by prejudiced, narrow-minded jocks who trap cripples in toilets, and the one person who would not do that is the best person who has ever lived. I don’t know if that show ever went anywhere, but I didn’t get the role. It didn’t resonate with me. When Oprah Winfrey asked me, “What do you think the biggest misconception about people with disabilities is?” my answer was, “That people think they’re helpless and that their personalities are defined by their disabilities. . . . Get to know the person; the chair is incidental.” Unfortunately, more often than not, the entertainment industry gets it backward. When my Oprah audition went viral, I was given the chance to finally share my perspective on what it meant to actually live with cerebral palsy. People with disabilities are given a platform so rarely that as soon as I had the chance to speak, it was assumed that I would and could be the voice for everyone with any physical disability—paralysis, muscular dystrophy, whatever it was that the elephant man had, and the anomaly that caused Bill Murray to relive the same twenty-four hours over and over in Groundhog Day. When I spoke about my own life and how humor helped me face down discrimination and other challenges, most people were very receptive to my story. Others were adamant that in order for me to be seen as an individual, I needed to be on message, reciting a rigidly scripted, politically correct monologue every time a journalist asked me about my experience with CP. I had apparently gotten my own life wrong. That week when I became a household name overnight, I was getting about a hundred calls a day because it hadn’t occurred to me to take down a promo reel on my YouTube channel that ended with my personal phone number. Most of the calls were from fans—fathers whose children were disabled and were moved to tears by my message of hope, shrieking teenage girls, even other OWN show contestants who called to wish me luck and give me advice. There was one phone call in particular that made me super-stoked that my phone number was public knowledge. “Hey Zach, this is Stephen Colbert. I heard you might be interested in doing a buddy cop movie. The writers and I had this idea to shoot a trailer where you would play a character called Rollin’ Thunder.” Somehow, Stephen had seen the Reddit AMA where I mentioned that he would be my ideal partner in an action movie. “That’s awesome!” I exclaimed, trying to wrap my head around the fact that I was talking to one of my idols. “We could put a sidecar on my wheelchair that you could ride in.” See? Even with Stephen Colbert, I was still angling to be that leading man. We never got to film it, but my friend Kevin Scarborough did the most amazing concept poster. So, Stephen, if you’re reading this, I’m still totally onboard. My phone just kept ringing, which was overwhelming and exhausting, but I was happy to talk with almost everyone. My work was finally making a positive impact. But amid all the well wishes and positivity, there were also bizarre calls that were tinged with resentment and slightly creepy vibes I couldn’t place. “Are you the guy I spoke with a year ago about my idea for a travel show for people with disabilities? I think we’ve had this conversation before . . .” a woman from Maryland accused. Her tone was very menacing. She kept me on the phone for an hour, grilling me, as though she were recording the call and trying to get a confession out of me. It was unsettling, to say the least.

There were also chats that started off friendly and then quickly revealed another agenda. “I absolutely love your work, and you’re very inspiring, but I was e-mailing with a friend of mine, and let me just read you what she wrote: He’s got a great attitude, but the stereotypes he’s perpetuating are undermining everything real advocates have worked for. Maybe he could get us in touch with Oprah and we could all work together on this show?” And then there were the people who were downright furious that I had chosen to describe myself as a “wheelchair-bound lady-magnet.” “You’re not bound to your wheelchair!” they’d yell into the receiver, with all the misplaced anger of a drunk dad at a Little League game. “Your wheelchair is not part of you!” a stranger would insist. Now, I’ll tell you what, when I travel with my wheelchair on a plane, they don’t stuff us both in cargo. I get to ride separately in economy. But on several occasions, airlines have lost my wheelchair in transit, and those unfortunate separations have taught me something. For instance, when I was heading back to Los Angeles after meeting with New York publishers to secure the deal that would eventually become this book, my electric wheelchair made a connection in Phoenix that I missed. The next flight to LA wasn’t until the following morning, so an airport employee brought me one of those gigantic airport wheelchairs with a pole sticking out of the top of it, pushed me to what would eventually be my gate, and left me there with my bags to spend the night. At my size (a robust youth medium), I’m unable to propel myself in a manual chair that seems specially fitted for The Mountain in Game of Thrones. So I spent the night on the floor at my gate, counting ants, unable to leave my bags to crawl to the bathroom. In that moment, I was forced to recognize that while I may not be physically bound to my chair, my autonomy most certainly is. My wheelchair is like the Canada to my Quebec—I wanna be free of it, I have my own identity, but if we split up, all I’m left to do is think of weird things I could put gravy and cheese curds on. Of course, the terminology traps didn’t end at “wheelchair-bound.” Other callers were distraught that I had chosen to describe myself as “a disabled person,” rather than their preferred “differently abled” or “a person with a disability.” I fully understand the intention behind person-first language. I agree full-heartedly with the goals of this movement. But here’s the thing: first of all, saying it my way is a full four syllables faster than “a person with a disability” and a whole lot less clunky. These are things that matter when you’re struggling to get yourself across in a fifteen-second sound bite on TV or trying to stand out to a casting agent who’s read ten thousand descriptions of ten thousand people in two weeks. And as for the whole “differently abled” thing, do we ever talk about anybody being “differently abled” when they are extraordinary at something, or does it always imply a disadvantage? We don’t say Tiger Woods is a differently abled golfer because he’s better than anybody else in the world. I’ve never seen a poster that says: Differently Abled Cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, Live at Carnegie Hall! It just never rang true for me. But my main problem is that with all of the emphasis placed on phrasing, I’ve found that people outside the disability community are wary of even starting a conversation with me because they’re afraid that if they use the wrong term, I’ll be profoundly offended. I never want to discourage anyone who’s genuinely interested or curious from asking an honest question. I always wanna be approachable. Now, anyone has the right to disagree with me. You have the right to be angry, even. This is just my personal take on a much larger issue. But before you craft a differently-abled effigy in my likeness and use this book as kindling, remember— whether or not we see eye to eye on the best route, we’re all trying to get to the same place. Learning how to stay true to yourself while some people expect you to speak for everyone has been a tightrope walk— which is very hard to do on four wheels. I never expected to be a disability advocate. I was a comedian first, a storyteller second, and probably a connoisseur of fine bathrooms third. But in that audition video I jokingly stated that “I have cerebral palsy, which I believe is the sexiest of the palsies.” The line caught on, and people with CP started adopting the title. As I was reading through YouTube comments, I was surprised to find that that little phrase was starting to change perceptions. Somebody wrote that they were out to lunch with their family and saw someone in a wheelchair who was severely disabled, and their first thought was not one of pity but of recognition, Oh, sexiest of the palsies! This guy was able to see a person in vastly different circumstances than his own and feel an instant sense of familiarity, like that person was somebody he could imagine grabbing a beer with. One of the reasons Oprah is the best interviewer in the world is because she’s able to make whoever is sitting across from her feel like they’ve met a new best friend. When Oprah and I hugged good-bye, I left knowing that I’d made an impression, but I thought it was along the lines of Someday I’d like to have this young man over to my house and we’ll split a quesadilla! I’d felt we’d shared a moment of mutual understanding, but when I watched the episode months later, I was surprised to see that after our brief encounter, when they cut back to Oprah for commentary on our exchange, she was in tears. “Zach makes you want to be a better person, with his humor and his heart, and everything he’s had to deal with from the time he was born. I’ve never met anyone like him, and I’ve met a lot of people.” On the one hand, that’s one of the nicest things that anybody has ever said about me, especially from a person who has interviewed so many of the world’s most extraordinary people. On the other, I couldn’t help but feel that this emotional response was at least in part due to an assumption that I had it a lot tougher than I actually did. Here was an African American woman born in 1950s Mississippi who had elevated herself to become one of the most influential and powerful voices in the world. I, on the other hand, have all the privileges afforded to every white, middle-class American male. On top of that, I have a loving family who has supported me in almost every endeavor I’ve undertaken. My single disadvantage is that I was born with cerebral palsy. I couldn’t help that. Instead of fighting against it, I worked with everything I had in my personal arsenal: humor, intelligence, empathy, curiosity, creativity, and hotness. Funneled through all those positive traits, my wheelchair and my diagnosis became tools rather than obstacles. I apply them when they can make my work better and try to check them at the door otherwise. They get in my way sometimes, but they also pave it. So when I’m sitting across from Oprah, or anyone else, my goal is to be seen not as someone who is forced to sit down, but rather as someone who chose to stand up. To me, that’s putting the person first. Oh, and for the record, Oprah smells lovely. Excerpted from “If At Birth You Don’t Succeed” by Zachary Dean Anner. Published by Henry Holt and Co. Copyright 2016 by Zachary Dean Anner. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

“So, what does Oprah smell like?” People ask me this question all the time, because in the fall of 2010 I got to sit across from Oprah Winfrey for twenty minutes. It was during the second-to-last episode of Your OWN Show as part of a press junket challenge where the final three contestants were interviewed by TV Guide and Entertainment Tonight, and then at the end were surprised by the queen herself for a one-on-one pleasant chat/most important job interview of our lives. The only difference between me and the other two contestants vying for their own shows was that I was not surprised. When Oprah came up behind me, tapped me on the shoulder, and said warmly, “Hey, fancy meeting you here!” my response was a casual and generally muppety, “Hellooo! I was expecting you!” I’d put two and two together that this was how the day was going to end as soon as I saw that producers who normally wore jeans and an eternal five o’clock shadow were now clean-shaven, wearing sport coats, and whispering about somebody with the code name “Big Bird.” Big Bird and I hit it off instantly, probably because I didn’t lean in to sniff her wrist as soon as we met. She asked me a question I’d gotten used to answering over the past couple of months since my audition video had gone viral. “When did you realize that you were different?” “Well, I knew I was in a wheelchair, obviously,” I quipped. “They didn’t shield that from me!” Oprah laughed, but the truth is that I’d lived with CP my entire life and I’d rarely had to articulate my feelings about it—that is, until I was inadvertently thrust into the role of advocate and spokesperson for everyone with a physical disability. I’d wanted to be famous for as long as I could remember. First, I thought I’d be an actor. Growing up in the early ’90s gave me great hope that the advent of CGI would one day allow me to play the action hero Bruce Willis/Harrison Ford-type roles, with a pair of fully functioning running and jumping legs inserted during post-production. When I was five years old I auditioned for the role of Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol. Seeing as I was the only applicant who was both tiny and crippled, I thought I was a shoe-in for the part, but I didn’t even get a callback. Undeterred, I continued to audition for school plays and musicals with zero success. I chalked up my lackluster career to a lack of mobility until college, when I realized the truth—I’m just a really, really shitty actor. The only two characters I can play convincingly are myself and a dumber and sweeter version of myself. So sometime in early adulthood, I consciously stopped attempting to act. I decided instead to hone my skills as an on-camera personality rather than holding out for computer-generated movie stardom. If I was gonna make it in entertainment, I was going to have to do it on the virtue of my charisma alone. I just had to find my voice and my angle to break in. I knew that cerebral palsy would probably hinder my leading man status, but I’d be lying if I didn’t also say I recognized that it set me apart. When I was filming my audition video, I checked my friend Aaron’s opening frame and gave him a direction I would normally avoid: “Go wider. They’ve gotta see the wheelchair right away.” I knew it would be off-putting to just see a guy with a lazy eye flailing his arms around like E.T. fleeing the CIA. But my instincts told me that if I showed the wheelchair and then went straight for the funny, I’d be more relatable than if I tried to hide it, and if I did this right, then by the end of the video my electric wheelchair and erratic movement would just be background noise. Over the years, I learned that in my career, unlike in life, sometimes my wheelchair is its own automatic door opener. I was able to win the OWN competition by applying one simple principle: be funny, and admit you suck before anyone else can call you out on it. In other words, make the narrative of your failure a comedy. I knew I hit the mark when John Mayer posted a vlog about me on his blog, saying that while watching my video, “the chair simply disappears,” which means that to the singer of “Your Body Is a Wonderland,” my body was not the focus, or, if taken literally, it means I can levitate. Both things are pretty cool. John Mayer even made good on a promise to write the theme song for Rollin’ with Zach and posed with me for goofy pictures backstage at a concert in Buffalo. But the storm of media attention surrounding my video brought with it some things that were far less comfortable than having a rock star sit on my lap. I was given a title I wasn’t prepared to own: Disabled Celebrity. I think we can all agree that Peter Dinklage is the best (technically) disabled person there is. When I was a kid, I didn’t have any dwarves to look up to, let alone any role models in wheelchairs. When people ask me who my heroes are, I never know how to answer that question because all the people I admired growing up were comedians and filmmakers and none of them had physical challenges. And though as a six-year-old in a tiny red wheelchair I could see virtue in FDR’s New Deal, Roosevelt’s reported womanizing barred him from idol status in my mind. Today the landscape has changed. People with Down syndrome star in movies, pop stars pretending to be in wheelchairs are on sitcoms, and, for the first time, people kinda maybe know what cerebral palsy is. Josh Blue won Last Comic Standing, and RJ Mitte became a household name by being the worst character on one of the best shows of all time. People with disabilities are more mainstream than ever. But there’s still one big problem that I see. Usually, the disability still comes first. Even on brilliant shows like Breaking Bad, where smaller ancillary characters are given emotional scenes and complex arcs, the guy with CP is used primarily as a device to make Walter White more sympathetic. Isn’t this drug kingpin’s life difficult? He has a son with a disability! RJ Mitte might be a good actor, but he’s given absolutely nothing to do besides whine and eat cereal. They only show his parents reacting to the prejudices he faces and they never give us any story lines about how he actually goes through life. Where are the episodes of Breaking Bad where Walt Jr. gets drunk at prom, or where he gets caught smoking pot with friends or masturbating into a meth beaker? So many missed opportunities to flesh this kid out! The reason we never see what he does or how he feels about anything is because characters with disabilities on television aren’t really portrayed as people. They’re just around to make you feel either good or bad by virtue of how other characters in the show respond to them. In 2008, when a show I was doing at the University of Texas called The Wingmen started getting some attention, a Hollywood agent sent me a script that he thought I’d be perfect for. It was a network sitcom about a crappy after-school chorus called Glee. To get me the audition, the agent had enthusiastically lied, “You need a guy in a wheelchair who’s a great singer? I got ’im!” I may have looked the part, but I can carry a tune about as well as I can carry an unborn baby. I was a horrible actor, but nevertheless, I put myself on tape reading lines and singing a rousingly pitchy rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” In the script, the character of Arty is locked in a porta-potty by cruel football players, only to be rescued by Finn, the quarterback with a heart of gold. Once again, the guy in the wheelchair is the helpless one. In this sitcom universe, the majority of the world is populated by prejudiced, narrow-minded jocks who trap cripples in toilets, and the one person who would not do that is the best person who has ever lived. I don’t know if that show ever went anywhere, but I didn’t get the role. It didn’t resonate with me. When Oprah Winfrey asked me, “What do you think the biggest misconception about people with disabilities is?” my answer was, “That people think they’re helpless and that their personalities are defined by their disabilities. . . . Get to know the person; the chair is incidental.” Unfortunately, more often than not, the entertainment industry gets it backward. When my Oprah audition went viral, I was given the chance to finally share my perspective on what it meant to actually live with cerebral palsy. People with disabilities are given a platform so rarely that as soon as I had the chance to speak, it was assumed that I would and could be the voice for everyone with any physical disability—paralysis, muscular dystrophy, whatever it was that the elephant man had, and the anomaly that caused Bill Murray to relive the same twenty-four hours over and over in Groundhog Day. When I spoke about my own life and how humor helped me face down discrimination and other challenges, most people were very receptive to my story. Others were adamant that in order for me to be seen as an individual, I needed to be on message, reciting a rigidly scripted, politically correct monologue every time a journalist asked me about my experience with CP. I had apparently gotten my own life wrong. That week when I became a household name overnight, I was getting about a hundred calls a day because it hadn’t occurred to me to take down a promo reel on my YouTube channel that ended with my personal phone number. Most of the calls were from fans—fathers whose children were disabled and were moved to tears by my message of hope, shrieking teenage girls, even other OWN show contestants who called to wish me luck and give me advice. There was one phone call in particular that made me super-stoked that my phone number was public knowledge. “Hey Zach, this is Stephen Colbert. I heard you might be interested in doing a buddy cop movie. The writers and I had this idea to shoot a trailer where you would play a character called Rollin’ Thunder.” Somehow, Stephen had seen the Reddit AMA where I mentioned that he would be my ideal partner in an action movie. “That’s awesome!” I exclaimed, trying to wrap my head around the fact that I was talking to one of my idols. “We could put a sidecar on my wheelchair that you could ride in.” See? Even with Stephen Colbert, I was still angling to be that leading man. We never got to film it, but my friend Kevin Scarborough did the most amazing concept poster. So, Stephen, if you’re reading this, I’m still totally onboard. My phone just kept ringing, which was overwhelming and exhausting, but I was happy to talk with almost everyone. My work was finally making a positive impact. But amid all the well wishes and positivity, there were also bizarre calls that were tinged with resentment and slightly creepy vibes I couldn’t place. “Are you the guy I spoke with a year ago about my idea for a travel show for people with disabilities? I think we’ve had this conversation before . . .” a woman from Maryland accused. Her tone was very menacing. She kept me on the phone for an hour, grilling me, as though she were recording the call and trying to get a confession out of me. It was unsettling, to say the least.

There were also chats that started off friendly and then quickly revealed another agenda. “I absolutely love your work, and you’re very inspiring, but I was e-mailing with a friend of mine, and let me just read you what she wrote: He’s got a great attitude, but the stereotypes he’s perpetuating are undermining everything real advocates have worked for. Maybe he could get us in touch with Oprah and we could all work together on this show?” And then there were the people who were downright furious that I had chosen to describe myself as a “wheelchair-bound lady-magnet.” “You’re not bound to your wheelchair!” they’d yell into the receiver, with all the misplaced anger of a drunk dad at a Little League game. “Your wheelchair is not part of you!” a stranger would insist. Now, I’ll tell you what, when I travel with my wheelchair on a plane, they don’t stuff us both in cargo. I get to ride separately in economy. But on several occasions, airlines have lost my wheelchair in transit, and those unfortunate separations have taught me something. For instance, when I was heading back to Los Angeles after meeting with New York publishers to secure the deal that would eventually become this book, my electric wheelchair made a connection in Phoenix that I missed. The next flight to LA wasn’t until the following morning, so an airport employee brought me one of those gigantic airport wheelchairs with a pole sticking out of the top of it, pushed me to what would eventually be my gate, and left me there with my bags to spend the night. At my size (a robust youth medium), I’m unable to propel myself in a manual chair that seems specially fitted for The Mountain in Game of Thrones. So I spent the night on the floor at my gate, counting ants, unable to leave my bags to crawl to the bathroom. In that moment, I was forced to recognize that while I may not be physically bound to my chair, my autonomy most certainly is. My wheelchair is like the Canada to my Quebec—I wanna be free of it, I have my own identity, but if we split up, all I’m left to do is think of weird things I could put gravy and cheese curds on. Of course, the terminology traps didn’t end at “wheelchair-bound.” Other callers were distraught that I had chosen to describe myself as “a disabled person,” rather than their preferred “differently abled” or “a person with a disability.” I fully understand the intention behind person-first language. I agree full-heartedly with the goals of this movement. But here’s the thing: first of all, saying it my way is a full four syllables faster than “a person with a disability” and a whole lot less clunky. These are things that matter when you’re struggling to get yourself across in a fifteen-second sound bite on TV or trying to stand out to a casting agent who’s read ten thousand descriptions of ten thousand people in two weeks. And as for the whole “differently abled” thing, do we ever talk about anybody being “differently abled” when they are extraordinary at something, or does it always imply a disadvantage? We don’t say Tiger Woods is a differently abled golfer because he’s better than anybody else in the world. I’ve never seen a poster that says: Differently Abled Cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, Live at Carnegie Hall! It just never rang true for me. But my main problem is that with all of the emphasis placed on phrasing, I’ve found that people outside the disability community are wary of even starting a conversation with me because they’re afraid that if they use the wrong term, I’ll be profoundly offended. I never want to discourage anyone who’s genuinely interested or curious from asking an honest question. I always wanna be approachable. Now, anyone has the right to disagree with me. You have the right to be angry, even. This is just my personal take on a much larger issue. But before you craft a differently-abled effigy in my likeness and use this book as kindling, remember— whether or not we see eye to eye on the best route, we’re all trying to get to the same place. Learning how to stay true to yourself while some people expect you to speak for everyone has been a tightrope walk— which is very hard to do on four wheels. I never expected to be a disability advocate. I was a comedian first, a storyteller second, and probably a connoisseur of fine bathrooms third. But in that audition video I jokingly stated that “I have cerebral palsy, which I believe is the sexiest of the palsies.” The line caught on, and people with CP started adopting the title. As I was reading through YouTube comments, I was surprised to find that that little phrase was starting to change perceptions. Somebody wrote that they were out to lunch with their family and saw someone in a wheelchair who was severely disabled, and their first thought was not one of pity but of recognition, Oh, sexiest of the palsies! This guy was able to see a person in vastly different circumstances than his own and feel an instant sense of familiarity, like that person was somebody he could imagine grabbing a beer with. One of the reasons Oprah is the best interviewer in the world is because she’s able to make whoever is sitting across from her feel like they’ve met a new best friend. When Oprah and I hugged good-bye, I left knowing that I’d made an impression, but I thought it was along the lines of Someday I’d like to have this young man over to my house and we’ll split a quesadilla! I’d felt we’d shared a moment of mutual understanding, but when I watched the episode months later, I was surprised to see that after our brief encounter, when they cut back to Oprah for commentary on our exchange, she was in tears. “Zach makes you want to be a better person, with his humor and his heart, and everything he’s had to deal with from the time he was born. I’ve never met anyone like him, and I’ve met a lot of people.” On the one hand, that’s one of the nicest things that anybody has ever said about me, especially from a person who has interviewed so many of the world’s most extraordinary people. On the other, I couldn’t help but feel that this emotional response was at least in part due to an assumption that I had it a lot tougher than I actually did. Here was an African American woman born in 1950s Mississippi who had elevated herself to become one of the most influential and powerful voices in the world. I, on the other hand, have all the privileges afforded to every white, middle-class American male. On top of that, I have a loving family who has supported me in almost every endeavor I’ve undertaken. My single disadvantage is that I was born with cerebral palsy. I couldn’t help that. Instead of fighting against it, I worked with everything I had in my personal arsenal: humor, intelligence, empathy, curiosity, creativity, and hotness. Funneled through all those positive traits, my wheelchair and my diagnosis became tools rather than obstacles. I apply them when they can make my work better and try to check them at the door otherwise. They get in my way sometimes, but they also pave it. So when I’m sitting across from Oprah, or anyone else, my goal is to be seen not as someone who is forced to sit down, but rather as someone who chose to stand up. To me, that’s putting the person first. Oh, and for the record, Oprah smells lovely. Excerpted from “If At Birth You Don’t Succeed” by Zachary Dean Anner. Published by Henry Holt and Co. Copyright 2016 by Zachary Dean Anner. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

“So, what does Oprah smell like?” People ask me this question all the time, because in the fall of 2010 I got to sit across from Oprah Winfrey for twenty minutes. It was during the second-to-last episode of Your OWN Show as part of a press junket challenge where the final three contestants were interviewed by TV Guide and Entertainment Tonight, and then at the end were surprised by the queen herself for a one-on-one pleasant chat/most important job interview of our lives. The only difference between me and the other two contestants vying for their own shows was that I was not surprised. When Oprah came up behind me, tapped me on the shoulder, and said warmly, “Hey, fancy meeting you here!” my response was a casual and generally muppety, “Hellooo! I was expecting you!” I’d put two and two together that this was how the day was going to end as soon as I saw that producers who normally wore jeans and an eternal five o’clock shadow were now clean-shaven, wearing sport coats, and whispering about somebody with the code name “Big Bird.” Big Bird and I hit it off instantly, probably because I didn’t lean in to sniff her wrist as soon as we met. She asked me a question I’d gotten used to answering over the past couple of months since my audition video had gone viral. “When did you realize that you were different?” “Well, I knew I was in a wheelchair, obviously,” I quipped. “They didn’t shield that from me!” Oprah laughed, but the truth is that I’d lived with CP my entire life and I’d rarely had to articulate my feelings about it—that is, until I was inadvertently thrust into the role of advocate and spokesperson for everyone with a physical disability. I’d wanted to be famous for as long as I could remember. First, I thought I’d be an actor. Growing up in the early ’90s gave me great hope that the advent of CGI would one day allow me to play the action hero Bruce Willis/Harrison Ford-type roles, with a pair of fully functioning running and jumping legs inserted during post-production. When I was five years old I auditioned for the role of Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol. Seeing as I was the only applicant who was both tiny and crippled, I thought I was a shoe-in for the part, but I didn’t even get a callback. Undeterred, I continued to audition for school plays and musicals with zero success. I chalked up my lackluster career to a lack of mobility until college, when I realized the truth—I’m just a really, really shitty actor. The only two characters I can play convincingly are myself and a dumber and sweeter version of myself. So sometime in early adulthood, I consciously stopped attempting to act. I decided instead to hone my skills as an on-camera personality rather than holding out for computer-generated movie stardom. If I was gonna make it in entertainment, I was going to have to do it on the virtue of my charisma alone. I just had to find my voice and my angle to break in. I knew that cerebral palsy would probably hinder my leading man status, but I’d be lying if I didn’t also say I recognized that it set me apart. When I was filming my audition video, I checked my friend Aaron’s opening frame and gave him a direction I would normally avoid: “Go wider. They’ve gotta see the wheelchair right away.” I knew it would be off-putting to just see a guy with a lazy eye flailing his arms around like E.T. fleeing the CIA. But my instincts told me that if I showed the wheelchair and then went straight for the funny, I’d be more relatable than if I tried to hide it, and if I did this right, then by the end of the video my electric wheelchair and erratic movement would just be background noise. Over the years, I learned that in my career, unlike in life, sometimes my wheelchair is its own automatic door opener. I was able to win the OWN competition by applying one simple principle: be funny, and admit you suck before anyone else can call you out on it. In other words, make the narrative of your failure a comedy. I knew I hit the mark when John Mayer posted a vlog about me on his blog, saying that while watching my video, “the chair simply disappears,” which means that to the singer of “Your Body Is a Wonderland,” my body was not the focus, or, if taken literally, it means I can levitate. Both things are pretty cool. John Mayer even made good on a promise to write the theme song for Rollin’ with Zach and posed with me for goofy pictures backstage at a concert in Buffalo. But the storm of media attention surrounding my video brought with it some things that were far less comfortable than having a rock star sit on my lap. I was given a title I wasn’t prepared to own: Disabled Celebrity. I think we can all agree that Peter Dinklage is the best (technically) disabled person there is. When I was a kid, I didn’t have any dwarves to look up to, let alone any role models in wheelchairs. When people ask me who my heroes are, I never know how to answer that question because all the people I admired growing up were comedians and filmmakers and none of them had physical challenges. And though as a six-year-old in a tiny red wheelchair I could see virtue in FDR’s New Deal, Roosevelt’s reported womanizing barred him from idol status in my mind. Today the landscape has changed. People with Down syndrome star in movies, pop stars pretending to be in wheelchairs are on sitcoms, and, for the first time, people kinda maybe know what cerebral palsy is. Josh Blue won Last Comic Standing, and RJ Mitte became a household name by being the worst character on one of the best shows of all time. People with disabilities are more mainstream than ever. But there’s still one big problem that I see. Usually, the disability still comes first. Even on brilliant shows like Breaking Bad, where smaller ancillary characters are given emotional scenes and complex arcs, the guy with CP is used primarily as a device to make Walter White more sympathetic. Isn’t this drug kingpin’s life difficult? He has a son with a disability! RJ Mitte might be a good actor, but he’s given absolutely nothing to do besides whine and eat cereal. They only show his parents reacting to the prejudices he faces and they never give us any story lines about how he actually goes through life. Where are the episodes of Breaking Bad where Walt Jr. gets drunk at prom, or where he gets caught smoking pot with friends or masturbating into a meth beaker? So many missed opportunities to flesh this kid out! The reason we never see what he does or how he feels about anything is because characters with disabilities on television aren’t really portrayed as people. They’re just around to make you feel either good or bad by virtue of how other characters in the show respond to them. In 2008, when a show I was doing at the University of Texas called The Wingmen started getting some attention, a Hollywood agent sent me a script that he thought I’d be perfect for. It was a network sitcom about a crappy after-school chorus called Glee. To get me the audition, the agent had enthusiastically lied, “You need a guy in a wheelchair who’s a great singer? I got ’im!” I may have looked the part, but I can carry a tune about as well as I can carry an unborn baby. I was a horrible actor, but nevertheless, I put myself on tape reading lines and singing a rousingly pitchy rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” In the script, the character of Arty is locked in a porta-potty by cruel football players, only to be rescued by Finn, the quarterback with a heart of gold. Once again, the guy in the wheelchair is the helpless one. In this sitcom universe, the majority of the world is populated by prejudiced, narrow-minded jocks who trap cripples in toilets, and the one person who would not do that is the best person who has ever lived. I don’t know if that show ever went anywhere, but I didn’t get the role. It didn’t resonate with me. When Oprah Winfrey asked me, “What do you think the biggest misconception about people with disabilities is?” my answer was, “That people think they’re helpless and that their personalities are defined by their disabilities. . . . Get to know the person; the chair is incidental.” Unfortunately, more often than not, the entertainment industry gets it backward. When my Oprah audition went viral, I was given the chance to finally share my perspective on what it meant to actually live with cerebral palsy. People with disabilities are given a platform so rarely that as soon as I had the chance to speak, it was assumed that I would and could be the voice for everyone with any physical disability—paralysis, muscular dystrophy, whatever it was that the elephant man had, and the anomaly that caused Bill Murray to relive the same twenty-four hours over and over in Groundhog Day. When I spoke about my own life and how humor helped me face down discrimination and other challenges, most people were very receptive to my story. Others were adamant that in order for me to be seen as an individual, I needed to be on message, reciting a rigidly scripted, politically correct monologue every time a journalist asked me about my experience with CP. I had apparently gotten my own life wrong. That week when I became a household name overnight, I was getting about a hundred calls a day because it hadn’t occurred to me to take down a promo reel on my YouTube channel that ended with my personal phone number. Most of the calls were from fans—fathers whose children were disabled and were moved to tears by my message of hope, shrieking teenage girls, even other OWN show contestants who called to wish me luck and give me advice. There was one phone call in particular that made me super-stoked that my phone number was public knowledge. “Hey Zach, this is Stephen Colbert. I heard you might be interested in doing a buddy cop movie. The writers and I had this idea to shoot a trailer where you would play a character called Rollin’ Thunder.” Somehow, Stephen had seen the Reddit AMA where I mentioned that he would be my ideal partner in an action movie. “That’s awesome!” I exclaimed, trying to wrap my head around the fact that I was talking to one of my idols. “We could put a sidecar on my wheelchair that you could ride in.” See? Even with Stephen Colbert, I was still angling to be that leading man. We never got to film it, but my friend Kevin Scarborough did the most amazing concept poster. So, Stephen, if you’re reading this, I’m still totally onboard. My phone just kept ringing, which was overwhelming and exhausting, but I was happy to talk with almost everyone. My work was finally making a positive impact. But amid all the well wishes and positivity, there were also bizarre calls that were tinged with resentment and slightly creepy vibes I couldn’t place. “Are you the guy I spoke with a year ago about my idea for a travel show for people with disabilities? I think we’ve had this conversation before . . .” a woman from Maryland accused. Her tone was very menacing. She kept me on the phone for an hour, grilling me, as though she were recording the call and trying to get a confession out of me. It was unsettling, to say the least.

There were also chats that started off friendly and then quickly revealed another agenda. “I absolutely love your work, and you’re very inspiring, but I was e-mailing with a friend of mine, and let me just read you what she wrote: He’s got a great attitude, but the stereotypes he’s perpetuating are undermining everything real advocates have worked for. Maybe he could get us in touch with Oprah and we could all work together on this show?” And then there were the people who were downright furious that I had chosen to describe myself as a “wheelchair-bound lady-magnet.” “You’re not bound to your wheelchair!” they’d yell into the receiver, with all the misplaced anger of a drunk dad at a Little League game. “Your wheelchair is not part of you!” a stranger would insist. Now, I’ll tell you what, when I travel with my wheelchair on a plane, they don’t stuff us both in cargo. I get to ride separately in economy. But on several occasions, airlines have lost my wheelchair in transit, and those unfortunate separations have taught me something. For instance, when I was heading back to Los Angeles after meeting with New York publishers to secure the deal that would eventually become this book, my electric wheelchair made a connection in Phoenix that I missed. The next flight to LA wasn’t until the following morning, so an airport employee brought me one of those gigantic airport wheelchairs with a pole sticking out of the top of it, pushed me to what would eventually be my gate, and left me there with my bags to spend the night. At my size (a robust youth medium), I’m unable to propel myself in a manual chair that seems specially fitted for The Mountain in Game of Thrones. So I spent the night on the floor at my gate, counting ants, unable to leave my bags to crawl to the bathroom. In that moment, I was forced to recognize that while I may not be physically bound to my chair, my autonomy most certainly is. My wheelchair is like the Canada to my Quebec—I wanna be free of it, I have my own identity, but if we split up, all I’m left to do is think of weird things I could put gravy and cheese curds on. Of course, the terminology traps didn’t end at “wheelchair-bound.” Other callers were distraught that I had chosen to describe myself as “a disabled person,” rather than their preferred “differently abled” or “a person with a disability.” I fully understand the intention behind person-first language. I agree full-heartedly with the goals of this movement. But here’s the thing: first of all, saying it my way is a full four syllables faster than “a person with a disability” and a whole lot less clunky. These are things that matter when you’re struggling to get yourself across in a fifteen-second sound bite on TV or trying to stand out to a casting agent who’s read ten thousand descriptions of ten thousand people in two weeks. And as for the whole “differently abled” thing, do we ever talk about anybody being “differently abled” when they are extraordinary at something, or does it always imply a disadvantage? We don’t say Tiger Woods is a differently abled golfer because he’s better than anybody else in the world. I’ve never seen a poster that says: Differently Abled Cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, Live at Carnegie Hall! It just never rang true for me. But my main problem is that with all of the emphasis placed on phrasing, I’ve found that people outside the disability community are wary of even starting a conversation with me because they’re afraid that if they use the wrong term, I’ll be profoundly offended. I never want to discourage anyone who’s genuinely interested or curious from asking an honest question. I always wanna be approachable. Now, anyone has the right to disagree with me. You have the right to be angry, even. This is just my personal take on a much larger issue. But before you craft a differently-abled effigy in my likeness and use this book as kindling, remember— whether or not we see eye to eye on the best route, we’re all trying to get to the same place. Learning how to stay true to yourself while some people expect you to speak for everyone has been a tightrope walk— which is very hard to do on four wheels. I never expected to be a disability advocate. I was a comedian first, a storyteller second, and probably a connoisseur of fine bathrooms third. But in that audition video I jokingly stated that “I have cerebral palsy, which I believe is the sexiest of the palsies.” The line caught on, and people with CP started adopting the title. As I was reading through YouTube comments, I was surprised to find that that little phrase was starting to change perceptions. Somebody wrote that they were out to lunch with their family and saw someone in a wheelchair who was severely disabled, and their first thought was not one of pity but of recognition, Oh, sexiest of the palsies! This guy was able to see a person in vastly different circumstances than his own and feel an instant sense of familiarity, like that person was somebody he could imagine grabbing a beer with. One of the reasons Oprah is the best interviewer in the world is because she’s able to make whoever is sitting across from her feel like they’ve met a new best friend. When Oprah and I hugged good-bye, I left knowing that I’d made an impression, but I thought it was along the lines of Someday I’d like to have this young man over to my house and we’ll split a quesadilla! I’d felt we’d shared a moment of mutual understanding, but when I watched the episode months later, I was surprised to see that after our brief encounter, when they cut back to Oprah for commentary on our exchange, she was in tears. “Zach makes you want to be a better person, with his humor and his heart, and everything he’s had to deal with from the time he was born. I’ve never met anyone like him, and I’ve met a lot of people.” On the one hand, that’s one of the nicest things that anybody has ever said about me, especially from a person who has interviewed so many of the world’s most extraordinary people. On the other, I couldn’t help but feel that this emotional response was at least in part due to an assumption that I had it a lot tougher than I actually did. Here was an African American woman born in 1950s Mississippi who had elevated herself to become one of the most influential and powerful voices in the world. I, on the other hand, have all the privileges afforded to every white, middle-class American male. On top of that, I have a loving family who has supported me in almost every endeavor I’ve undertaken. My single disadvantage is that I was born with cerebral palsy. I couldn’t help that. Instead of fighting against it, I worked with everything I had in my personal arsenal: humor, intelligence, empathy, curiosity, creativity, and hotness. Funneled through all those positive traits, my wheelchair and my diagnosis became tools rather than obstacles. I apply them when they can make my work better and try to check them at the door otherwise. They get in my way sometimes, but they also pave it. So when I’m sitting across from Oprah, or anyone else, my goal is to be seen not as someone who is forced to sit down, but rather as someone who chose to stand up. To me, that’s putting the person first. Oh, and for the record, Oprah smells lovely. Excerpted from “If At Birth You Don’t Succeed” by Zachary Dean Anner. Published by Henry Holt and Co. Copyright 2016 by Zachary Dean Anner. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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Joy is a feminist (comedy) act: With her playful, dirty swagger, “Broad City”’s Ilana is breaking the mold

In her now famous skit, “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer,” Schumer spoofs the iconic film “12 Angry Men” by depicting a jury of 12, whose job is to decide whether she is attractive enough to be on T.V. “It’s an undisputed fact that a woman’s value is mostly determined by her looks,” one man says, the others concurring seriously. Since “Inside Amy Schumer” debuted on Comedy Central in 2013, Schumer has consistently lampooned sexism in American culture, from the way that the military treats sexual assault, to the ways that Hollywood reduces women to sex objects. Her increasingly political skits have ushered in an era where it’s simply become impossible to argue that feminists of the world lack a sense of humor; indeed, Schumer’s brand of comedy has managed to do what many critics have historically thought was impossible — getting a huge male audience to laugh about what have historically been seen as “women’s issues.” Certainly, talented female comedians like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Wanda Sykes and Sarah Silverman have been making us laugh for years, but Schumer’s spin on women’s comedy is unique in its sheer insistence in forcing viewers to contend with American misogyny head-on. Her incisive look at how women are bullied and belittled, cajoled into losing weight, and, time after time, have horrible, unfulfilling sexual experiences has become the backbone of the entire series. In an age of #YesAllWomen, Schumer’s comedy taps into a kind of feminist cultural zeitgeist, which isn’t afraid to depict the reality that being a woman in 21st century America society is awful, rather than empowering. Many other feminist comedians in recent years have also criticized a culture that constantly tells women how they should think, feel, eat and fuck. It’s a powerful and intelligent message of female solidarity, but it’s also one that is predicated on a flattened experience of being female. With few exceptions, the high-profile female comedians of today paint being a woman as an experience of fear, bullying and debasement — from Jessica William’s sharp take on catcalling and street harassment for “The Daily Show,” titled “Jessica’s Feminized Atmosphere,” to “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” which promises an escape from the “sausage fest” of late night television. Heck, even chipper Kimmy Schmidt’s coming- of-age story involves being kidnapped and held against her will in a bunker. If #YesAllWomen is this generation’s feminist rallying cry, it points to a generation of women who aren’t just railing against the patriarchy; they are intrinsically distressed at what it means to be a girl in the world. With one meaningful exception: “Broad City”’s bold, beautiful, and seriously high Ilana Wexler. Ilana (played by co-creator Ilana Glazer), who is concisely described by New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum as a “horndog narcissist.” Ilana, whose email is ilanawexler@mindmyvagina.com. Ilana, who refuses to shave. Ilana, who twerks at the thought of best friend Abbi Abrams (co-creator Abbi Jacobson) pegging her sexual partner (“All throughout college, I slept with a strap-on on, just in case the opportunity came along…”). Ilana, whose cries of “YAS KWEEN” exalt powerful women, from a deeply admired boss to Hillary Rodham Clinton. One of the greatest pleasures of watching “Broad City” is seeing a staunchly feminist show with a major protagonist who just enjoys the hell out of being a woman in her 20s. Ilana is brazen, frankly sexual, often selfish and immature, but also loveable and an incredibly good friend. While I love both the characters of Abbi and Ilana, Ilana’s dirty swagger is especially vibrant and joyful and comes out of left field in a culture where girls and women aren’t expected to be particularly happy at being a woman. But while Ilana often bemoans sexism, calling out rape culture, and literally attacking a catcaller who dares to make remarks at her best friend, she is clearly delighted at being fiercely femme — from her sexually revealing outfits and make-up to her joyfully polyamorous bisexual brand of sexual empowerment. While Schumer depicts “porn from a women’s POV” as close-ups of a sweaty armpit and a clear view of the nightstand, Ilana’s hunt for porn involves eating oysters (despite her shellfish allergy) and wearing sultry green lipstick, as she casually searches for something she wants to watch. Ilana’s self-love stands out against a landscape of female protagonists who are presented as being at the mercy of a misogynistic culture. While shows like “Inside Amy Schumer” hold a mirror up to patriarchal America by focusing on the life of a self-deprecating and insecure “Amy” who eagerly washes off and then puts back on her makeup when an imaginary boy band tells her to, Ilana is cramming a bag of weed into her vagina, which she fondly refers to as “nature’s pocket,” and getting off with a guy who offers to go down on her for 45 minutes (she later dumps him for his crappy improv act). Ilana’s Kanye-level confidence is more than just delightfully absurd — in a sea of smart, beautiful female comics who mine self-deprecation for laughs, Ilana Wexler presents a vision of female comedy that both fiercely feminist and genuinely hopeful. None of this is to say that Ilana is a “role model.” After all, in many ways, Ilana is completely off-the-wall and foolish. She harasses her co-workers, is often sexually inappropriate and is so wrapped up in her own “woke” identity that she often says racially and culturally insensitive things. (When reflecting on her preference for black as opposed to pink penises, Abbi sharply points out to Ilana that, “You’re so anti-racist sometimes that you’re actually really racist.”) The show often smartly calls attention to this fact. In one episode this season, Ilana’s roommate gently suggests that her gold hoop earrings with the word “Latina” written on them are simply appropriating other cultures, as Ilana sits on the bed next to him sobbing white feminist tears. Ilana’s humor generally comes from this type of willful misinterpretation of the world around her. In some cases (like in the aforementioned one) the joke is very clearly on her, but in others, the joke is clearly on a sexist society. In Season 2, Episode 10, for example, she spies a “Female Body Inspector” shirt at a store and excitedly tells Abbi she has to get it. “I’m a female and I love to inspect bodies!” Of course, Ilana is wrong. On a show like “Inside Amy Schumer,” the character “Amy” would be going on a date with a guy who wears this kind of shirt on a first date and we’d laugh at how tacky and offensive it is. After all, in reality, we know that no amount of feminist rebranding is going to reclaim the meaning of a sexist piece of swag. But the wonderful thing about watching “Broad City” is getting to cheer for Ilana as she joyfully tries to do it anyway.In her now famous skit, “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer,” Schumer spoofs the iconic film “12 Angry Men” by depicting a jury of 12, whose job is to decide whether she is attractive enough to be on T.V. “It’s an undisputed fact that a woman’s value is mostly determined by her looks,” one man says, the others concurring seriously. Since “Inside Amy Schumer” debuted on Comedy Central in 2013, Schumer has consistently lampooned sexism in American culture, from the way that the military treats sexual assault, to the ways that Hollywood reduces women to sex objects. Her increasingly political skits have ushered in an era where it’s simply become impossible to argue that feminists of the world lack a sense of humor; indeed, Schumer’s brand of comedy has managed to do what many critics have historically thought was impossible — getting a huge male audience to laugh about what have historically been seen as “women’s issues.” Certainly, talented female comedians like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Wanda Sykes and Sarah Silverman have been making us laugh for years, but Schumer’s spin on women’s comedy is unique in its sheer insistence in forcing viewers to contend with American misogyny head-on. Her incisive look at how women are bullied and belittled, cajoled into losing weight, and, time after time, have horrible, unfulfilling sexual experiences has become the backbone of the entire series. In an age of #YesAllWomen, Schumer’s comedy taps into a kind of feminist cultural zeitgeist, which isn’t afraid to depict the reality that being a woman in 21st century America society is awful, rather than empowering. Many other feminist comedians in recent years have also criticized a culture that constantly tells women how they should think, feel, eat and fuck. It’s a powerful and intelligent message of female solidarity, but it’s also one that is predicated on a flattened experience of being female. With few exceptions, the high-profile female comedians of today paint being a woman as an experience of fear, bullying and debasement — from Jessica William’s sharp take on catcalling and street harassment for “The Daily Show,” titled “Jessica’s Feminized Atmosphere,” to “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” which promises an escape from the “sausage fest” of late night television. Heck, even chipper Kimmy Schmidt’s coming- of-age story involves being kidnapped and held against her will in a bunker. If #YesAllWomen is this generation’s feminist rallying cry, it points to a generation of women who aren’t just railing against the patriarchy; they are intrinsically distressed at what it means to be a girl in the world. With one meaningful exception: “Broad City”’s bold, beautiful, and seriously high Ilana Wexler. Ilana (played by co-creator Ilana Glazer), who is concisely described by New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum as a “horndog narcissist.” Ilana, whose email is ilanawexler@mindmyvagina.com. Ilana, who refuses to shave. Ilana, who twerks at the thought of best friend Abbi Abrams (co-creator Abbi Jacobson) pegging her sexual partner (“All throughout college, I slept with a strap-on on, just in case the opportunity came along…”). Ilana, whose cries of “YAS KWEEN” exalt powerful women, from a deeply admired boss to Hillary Rodham Clinton. One of the greatest pleasures of watching “Broad City” is seeing a staunchly feminist show with a major protagonist who just enjoys the hell out of being a woman in her 20s. Ilana is brazen, frankly sexual, often selfish and immature, but also loveable and an incredibly good friend. While I love both the characters of Abbi and Ilana, Ilana’s dirty swagger is especially vibrant and joyful and comes out of left field in a culture where girls and women aren’t expected to be particularly happy at being a woman. But while Ilana often bemoans sexism, calling out rape culture, and literally attacking a catcaller who dares to make remarks at her best friend, she is clearly delighted at being fiercely femme — from her sexually revealing outfits and make-up to her joyfully polyamorous bisexual brand of sexual empowerment. While Schumer depicts “porn from a women’s POV” as close-ups of a sweaty armpit and a clear view of the nightstand, Ilana’s hunt for porn involves eating oysters (despite her shellfish allergy) and wearing sultry green lipstick, as she casually searches for something she wants to watch. Ilana’s self-love stands out against a landscape of female protagonists who are presented as being at the mercy of a misogynistic culture. While shows like “Inside Amy Schumer” hold a mirror up to patriarchal America by focusing on the life of a self-deprecating and insecure “Amy” who eagerly washes off and then puts back on her makeup when an imaginary boy band tells her to, Ilana is cramming a bag of weed into her vagina, which she fondly refers to as “nature’s pocket,” and getting off with a guy who offers to go down on her for 45 minutes (she later dumps him for his crappy improv act). Ilana’s Kanye-level confidence is more than just delightfully absurd — in a sea of smart, beautiful female comics who mine self-deprecation for laughs, Ilana Wexler presents a vision of female comedy that both fiercely feminist and genuinely hopeful. None of this is to say that Ilana is a “role model.” After all, in many ways, Ilana is completely off-the-wall and foolish. She harasses her co-workers, is often sexually inappropriate and is so wrapped up in her own “woke” identity that she often says racially and culturally insensitive things. (When reflecting on her preference for black as opposed to pink penises, Abbi sharply points out to Ilana that, “You’re so anti-racist sometimes that you’re actually really racist.”) The show often smartly calls attention to this fact. In one episode this season, Ilana’s roommate gently suggests that her gold hoop earrings with the word “Latina” written on them are simply appropriating other cultures, as Ilana sits on the bed next to him sobbing white feminist tears. Ilana’s humor generally comes from this type of willful misinterpretation of the world around her. In some cases (like in the aforementioned one) the joke is very clearly on her, but in others, the joke is clearly on a sexist society. In Season 2, Episode 10, for example, she spies a “Female Body Inspector” shirt at a store and excitedly tells Abbi she has to get it. “I’m a female and I love to inspect bodies!” Of course, Ilana is wrong. On a show like “Inside Amy Schumer,” the character “Amy” would be going on a date with a guy who wears this kind of shirt on a first date and we’d laugh at how tacky and offensive it is. After all, in reality, we know that no amount of feminist rebranding is going to reclaim the meaning of a sexist piece of swag. But the wonderful thing about watching “Broad City” is getting to cheer for Ilana as she joyfully tries to do it anyway.

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Andrew Bird gets confessional, at last: “I really wanted to make a less whimsical, more visceral, grab-you-in-the-gut kind of record”

Despite going through conservatory and getting a degree in violin performance, Andrew Bird has always felt like an outsider in the world of classical music. Yet, as alternative acts were blooming around him in 1990s Chicago, he quickly realized he also didn’t belong in the world of confessional music that emphasized emotion over technical songcraft. Rather than give up, Bird built property on this seeming no-man’s land — a career based on his trademark violin, whistling and witty lyrics. With those career hallmarks in place, Bird is setting out now on his new record, “Are You Serious,” to deliver a sound that is more consciously polished and produced. Along the way, he’s finding that he has a bit more in common with the confessional cadre than he once thought — and that he’s more worried about democracy and guns than ever before. This is a very strange time to be an American and to consider what democracy means with the election progressing, and I wondered if you had found any understanding of that for yourself. I am searching for understanding. It’s interesting; I was just looking at Salon last night, and there was an article that used the words I’d been searching for about Donald Trump, using the word “strongman” and “authoritarian,” and that’s what I’d been thinking. Like, wow, this is maybe one of the greatest risks to our democracy we’ve encountered. And that’s all — who knows what’s gonna happen? And I’m hearing from my friends, “Oh, if he gets elected, I’m leaving the country.” I always have a problem with that one. Well, good for you. Save your own skin. Leave us all to deal with it. These are the things that are going through my mind. I read that you’re donating profits from your concert ticket sales to enrich gun control, and I was wondering specifically what organizations you’re working with and how they’re going about their efforts. It’s Everytown For Gun Safety, which is — I’m pretty impressed by them. They’ve got a really sensible message, which is kind of a voice that’s needed, ’cause everything’s so super-polarized on the issue. They’re trying really hard to speak to the gun owners out there and not coming out with any threats to take away their guns or anything. Which is always the way I think. That kind of sensible voice is not always very popular, or, some would say, not always very effective. I just gotta believe that common sense can prevail sometimes. So we’re doing these [donations] through the concerts and then we’re working on a video based on my song called “Pulaski at Night,” which is about Chicago. Not written specifically about gun violence, but, as is the case with a lot of my songs, could be taken in many different ways. We’re hoping that some of the imagery — it’s gonna be shot in Chicago — and we’re working on some concepts that will hopefully draw attention to the issue. What do you think it will take to get us to a place where we have gun-related equilibrium? Or at least, we’re not constantly having mass shootings? Personally, I think it comes down to alienation and also kind of a warrior sensibility in our culture. It pervades a lot of aspects of American life, the need to project strength and control. Guns are very symbolic for Americans, I guess. ‘Cause what are they, other than these things that shoot these projectiles? They’re mechanical devices that throw something very fast through the air. I try to think of it in those terms. It’s just this thing that does this thing; why is it such an obsession? And it comes down to symbolism and control. Security and strength, and all these things Americans seem to be pretty fixated on. I think that the mass shootings — most of them, I don’t know the statistics — but school shootings, that comes down to an amplified version of what we all probably went through in junior high and high school. Just taken to the extreme. When I was in sixth grade, I went through all sorts of vengeance scenarios to get back at the kids who were beating the crap out of me every day. None of them involved guns. The availability of guns certainly is a part of that. But I think the root cause is more about alienation and some of our social structures and institutional education — it’s just too easy for a kid to get lost. There’s more and more of us on the planet every day; there’s more and more molecules rubbing against others, creating more friction and more scrapes out there. So it’s just reaching a fever pitch. But certainly it is epidemic, more in America than other places. We gotta look at the way we have our whole society structured, really. Did you go into making “Are You Serious” with any sort of goal or mission for yourself? The previous couple of records were very scrappy by design. They were not very produced. I wanted them to be honest and just people in a room making music, and I wanted the sound to be natural, unproduced. This one, I wanted to embrace production for good rather than evil and really try to nail something. I wanted the process to be more rigorous than it’s been in the past, and that involved reaching out to people and trusting more people around me. I really wanted to make a less whimsical, more visceral, grab-you-in-the-gut kind of record. I have all these grand schemes before I make a record. Usually, it’s the antidote to whatever I’d done before. But I think in — I don’t know how many records, ten, thirteen, it’s arguable —I’ve never gone for it like this. On the single, “Left Handed Kisses,” hearing you and Fiona Apple singing together seems like it unlocks things in both of you that I don’t usually hear in your music. How did that collaboration come about? Was it just done in a couple takes or did it take longer? Well, the life of that song is really strange. Four years ago, I started writing this song where I challenged myself to write a simple love song, knowing that I was going to fail. But I wanted to prove to myself that I can write this love song, and I’m going to put “baby” in the chorus just to make it extra hard for myself. It’s from the point of view of this skeptic, who nonetheless is trying to say, “Well, if I don’t believe in these things, star-crossed lovers, that there’s a right one out there for you, then how did I manage to find you in the multitudes?” Then I had this other line in my head, this “left-handed kisses” line just popped into my head randomly and left-handed, back-handed, this voice in my own head sort of saying, “This isn’t gonna fly; you sound a little [insincere]. If you really loved me, you’d take more risks.” I do that a lot; I have a critique of my own song, and it becomes part of the song. It’s a question of if it’s strong enough of another voice to become another person and be a duet. I have a history of doing this. I knew that the person with that voice would have to be really indicting and strong, and Fiona was at the top of a very short list. Next thing I know, we’re in the studio recording it, and then a couple months later we’re on daytime television doing it on “Ellen.” Kind of a trip, that a song that complex and strange that doesn’t push all your pop buttons and relies simply on the rawness of the dialogue. It really is like a short play. I watched your TED Talk again last night and also thought about the pieces on songwriting you’d written for “Measure for Measure.” You don’t consider yourself a confessional songwriter, but you’re willing to expose these parts of your process to your audience. What makes you feel comfortable inviting people in behind the scenes? I don’t know what it is about me. I like to take the myths out of things. I know people say “You’re gonna demystify it or take the mystery out of it,” but I don’t think there’s any risk of coming close to doing that. I like the dialogue with the audience. I often debut songs before they’re finished and say, “I don’t know if it should go this way or that way. What do you think?” And it’s not like I’m gonna have people leaving comment cards on the way out or anything like that, but it’s just the idea of being open because I don’t like to come onstage with attitude or the feeling that I’ve got it all dialed in. I always walk onstage thinking, “Oh my god, what’s going to happen? I don’t know what I’m doing.” It’s not lack of confidence. I totally do know what I’m doing. It’s just that’s something that works for me, the shoulder-to-shoulder, the connection to the audience somehow. You got your start in Chicago in the ’90s, and I was thinking how Liz Phair, Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill and Material Issue were all also part of the Chicago scene of that decade. How much of that did you soak up, or was it totally separate from what you were doing? I was definitely around it, but I felt like a total outsider in that scene. I would go to Lounge Acts and Empty Bottle and see these bands, and that’s kind of where the title for this record comes from. I was coming from this — I guess “trained” is not the right word because I was never a good student — but I did go through conservatory and got a degree in violin performance, so that kind of qualifies me as not-your-DIY musician. But I was fascinated by that scene because it was so determined to be “It’s not about how well we play; it’s all about the emotion.” Despite my background, I identified with that. I never fit into the classical world. But I also had a little disconnect because I was into comparatively more fancy music than this raw, post-rock, or the Liz Phair confessional thing. I would think, sometimes, as I’d see someone singing about their pain, I would think, “Man, are you serious? Are you serious? If you’re serious, you’re gonna have to back this up every night, night after night.” And I just couldn’t identify with that sort of confessional thing that was going on, that still goes on. Then I named this record that because, after all these years, I find myself doing that or some version of that. It’s still done on my own terms, but it’s still processing some crazy, heavy stuff that happened to me. That was a very foreign idea to me when I was younger. What do you think you would be if you weren’t a musician? I’m not good at much else. It’s always been my job, though I was broke for many, many years. When I was younger I wanted to be a psychiatrist because I liked the idea of having a wood-paneled office. I liked the furniture. I was interested in listening to people. I might have been good at that, but I didn’t do well in academia either. I’m just not a methodical person, so I’m just a bit haphazard. That question came from listening to you talk about loops in the TED Talk — I wondered if you had any scientific leanings. My theories are a bit more in the crackpot realm. I like to get to the big, big idea, even if my science is reckless. Like the TED thing I talked about, what is feedback? What is a feedback loop in nature, talking about mad cow disease and all these fascinating things that are kind of gross that we aren’t really discussing as a people. I’m interested in those things where there’s something there that we haven’t gotten to the bottom of, but there’s something there that tells us what we’re made of.Despite going through conservatory and getting a degree in violin performance, Andrew Bird has always felt like an outsider in the world of classical music. Yet, as alternative acts were blooming around him in 1990s Chicago, he quickly realized he also didn’t belong in the world of confessional music that emphasized emotion over technical songcraft. Rather than give up, Bird built property on this seeming no-man’s land — a career based on his trademark violin, whistling and witty lyrics. With those career hallmarks in place, Bird is setting out now on his new record, “Are You Serious,” to deliver a sound that is more consciously polished and produced. Along the way, he’s finding that he has a bit more in common with the confessional cadre than he once thought — and that he’s more worried about democracy and guns than ever before. This is a very strange time to be an American and to consider what democracy means with the election progressing, and I wondered if you had found any understanding of that for yourself. I am searching for understanding. It’s interesting; I was just looking at Salon last night, and there was an article that used the words I’d been searching for about Donald Trump, using the word “strongman” and “authoritarian,” and that’s what I’d been thinking. Like, wow, this is maybe one of the greatest risks to our democracy we’ve encountered. And that’s all — who knows what’s gonna happen? And I’m hearing from my friends, “Oh, if he gets elected, I’m leaving the country.” I always have a problem with that one. Well, good for you. Save your own skin. Leave us all to deal with it. These are the things that are going through my mind. I read that you’re donating profits from your concert ticket sales to enrich gun control, and I was wondering specifically what organizations you’re working with and how they’re going about their efforts. It’s Everytown For Gun Safety, which is — I’m pretty impressed by them. They’ve got a really sensible message, which is kind of a voice that’s needed, ’cause everything’s so super-polarized on the issue. They’re trying really hard to speak to the gun owners out there and not coming out with any threats to take away their guns or anything. Which is always the way I think. That kind of sensible voice is not always very popular, or, some would say, not always very effective. I just gotta believe that common sense can prevail sometimes. So we’re doing these [donations] through the concerts and then we’re working on a video based on my song called “Pulaski at Night,” which is about Chicago. Not written specifically about gun violence, but, as is the case with a lot of my songs, could be taken in many different ways. We’re hoping that some of the imagery — it’s gonna be shot in Chicago — and we’re working on some concepts that will hopefully draw attention to the issue. What do you think it will take to get us to a place where we have gun-related equilibrium? Or at least, we’re not constantly having mass shootings? Personally, I think it comes down to alienation and also kind of a warrior sensibility in our culture. It pervades a lot of aspects of American life, the need to project strength and control. Guns are very symbolic for Americans, I guess. ‘Cause what are they, other than these things that shoot these projectiles? They’re mechanical devices that throw something very fast through the air. I try to think of it in those terms. It’s just this thing that does this thing; why is it such an obsession? And it comes down to symbolism and control. Security and strength, and all these things Americans seem to be pretty fixated on. I think that the mass shootings — most of them, I don’t know the statistics — but school shootings, that comes down to an amplified version of what we all probably went through in junior high and high school. Just taken to the extreme. When I was in sixth grade, I went through all sorts of vengeance scenarios to get back at the kids who were beating the crap out of me every day. None of them involved guns. The availability of guns certainly is a part of that. But I think the root cause is more about alienation and some of our social structures and institutional education — it’s just too easy for a kid to get lost. There’s more and more of us on the planet every day; there’s more and more molecules rubbing against others, creating more friction and more scrapes out there. So it’s just reaching a fever pitch. But certainly it is epidemic, more in America than other places. We gotta look at the way we have our whole society structured, really. Did you go into making “Are You Serious” with any sort of goal or mission for yourself? The previous couple of records were very scrappy by design. They were not very produced. I wanted them to be honest and just people in a room making music, and I wanted the sound to be natural, unproduced. This one, I wanted to embrace production for good rather than evil and really try to nail something. I wanted the process to be more rigorous than it’s been in the past, and that involved reaching out to people and trusting more people around me. I really wanted to make a less whimsical, more visceral, grab-you-in-the-gut kind of record. I have all these grand schemes before I make a record. Usually, it’s the antidote to whatever I’d done before. But I think in — I don’t know how many records, ten, thirteen, it’s arguable —I’ve never gone for it like this. On the single, “Left Handed Kisses,” hearing you and Fiona Apple singing together seems like it unlocks things in both of you that I don’t usually hear in your music. How did that collaboration come about? Was it just done in a couple takes or did it take longer? Well, the life of that song is really strange. Four years ago, I started writing this song where I challenged myself to write a simple love song, knowing that I was going to fail. But I wanted to prove to myself that I can write this love song, and I’m going to put “baby” in the chorus just to make it extra hard for myself. It’s from the point of view of this skeptic, who nonetheless is trying to say, “Well, if I don’t believe in these things, star-crossed lovers, that there’s a right one out there for you, then how did I manage to find you in the multitudes?” Then I had this other line in my head, this “left-handed kisses” line just popped into my head randomly and left-handed, back-handed, this voice in my own head sort of saying, “This isn’t gonna fly; you sound a little [insincere]. If you really loved me, you’d take more risks.” I do that a lot; I have a critique of my own song, and it becomes part of the song. It’s a question of if it’s strong enough of another voice to become another person and be a duet. I have a history of doing this. I knew that the person with that voice would have to be really indicting and strong, and Fiona was at the top of a very short list. Next thing I know, we’re in the studio recording it, and then a couple months later we’re on daytime television doing it on “Ellen.” Kind of a trip, that a song that complex and strange that doesn’t push all your pop buttons and relies simply on the rawness of the dialogue. It really is like a short play. I watched your TED Talk again last night and also thought about the pieces on songwriting you’d written for “Measure for Measure.” You don’t consider yourself a confessional songwriter, but you’re willing to expose these parts of your process to your audience. What makes you feel comfortable inviting people in behind the scenes? I don’t know what it is about me. I like to take the myths out of things. I know people say “You’re gonna demystify it or take the mystery out of it,” but I don’t think there’s any risk of coming close to doing that. I like the dialogue with the audience. I often debut songs before they’re finished and say, “I don’t know if it should go this way or that way. What do you think?” And it’s not like I’m gonna have people leaving comment cards on the way out or anything like that, but it’s just the idea of being open because I don’t like to come onstage with attitude or the feeling that I’ve got it all dialed in. I always walk onstage thinking, “Oh my god, what’s going to happen? I don’t know what I’m doing.” It’s not lack of confidence. I totally do know what I’m doing. It’s just that’s something that works for me, the shoulder-to-shoulder, the connection to the audience somehow. You got your start in Chicago in the ’90s, and I was thinking how Liz Phair, Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill and Material Issue were all also part of the Chicago scene of that decade. How much of that did you soak up, or was it totally separate from what you were doing? I was definitely around it, but I felt like a total outsider in that scene. I would go to Lounge Acts and Empty Bottle and see these bands, and that’s kind of where the title for this record comes from. I was coming from this — I guess “trained” is not the right word because I was never a good student — but I did go through conservatory and got a degree in violin performance, so that kind of qualifies me as not-your-DIY musician. But I was fascinated by that scene because it was so determined to be “It’s not about how well we play; it’s all about the emotion.” Despite my background, I identified with that. I never fit into the classical world. But I also had a little disconnect because I was into comparatively more fancy music than this raw, post-rock, or the Liz Phair confessional thing. I would think, sometimes, as I’d see someone singing about their pain, I would think, “Man, are you serious? Are you serious? If you’re serious, you’re gonna have to back this up every night, night after night.” And I just couldn’t identify with that sort of confessional thing that was going on, that still goes on. Then I named this record that because, after all these years, I find myself doing that or some version of that. It’s still done on my own terms, but it’s still processing some crazy, heavy stuff that happened to me. That was a very foreign idea to me when I was younger. What do you think you would be if you weren’t a musician? I’m not good at much else. It’s always been my job, though I was broke for many, many years. When I was younger I wanted to be a psychiatrist because I liked the idea of having a wood-paneled office. I liked the furniture. I was interested in listening to people. I might have been good at that, but I didn’t do well in academia either. I’m just not a methodical person, so I’m just a bit haphazard. That question came from listening to you talk about loops in the TED Talk — I wondered if you had any scientific leanings. My theories are a bit more in the crackpot realm. I like to get to the big, big idea, even if my science is reckless. Like the TED thing I talked about, what is feedback? What is a feedback loop in nature, talking about mad cow disease and all these fascinating things that are kind of gross that we aren’t really discussing as a people. I’m interested in those things where there’s something there that we haven’t gotten to the bottom of, but there’s something there that tells us what we’re made of.

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Judge won’t put brakes on Uber case: Price-fixing lawsuit against car service still alive

Uber founder and CEO Travis Kalanick, who is being sued over alleged price-fixing by his popular ride-sharing service, has failed in his effort to have the suit against him dismissed, Gothamist reports. The class-action suit, brought by Spencer Meyer, of Connecticut, in December 2015, claims that Uber’s pricing algorithm violates antitrust laws. Uber has gone to great lengths to classify its drivers as independent contractors rather than employees, a distinction of significant financial importance for the company. Meyer’s suit argues that this very classification places Uber on the wrong side of the law. Because the company’s drivers are independent contractors, the suit says, they are all technically in competition with one another, which makes Uber’s pricing system an illegal, competition-eliminating price-fixing mechanism. “Uber has a simple but illegal business plan: to fix prices among competitors and take a cut of the profits,” the lawsuit claims. “Kalanick is the proud architect of that business plan.” U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff ruled Tuesday that Kalanick will have to face the lawsuit. The case is set to go to court in for November. “The advancement of technological means for the orchestration of large-scale price-fixing conspiracies need not leave antitrust law behind,” Rakoff wrote in his ruling, declining to dismiss the suit. “The fact that Uber goes to such great lengths to portray itself—one might even say disguise itself—as the mere purveyor of an ‘app’ cannot shield it from the consequences of it operating as much more.” Meyer’s suit also claims that Uber encourages drivers to artificially manipulate its pricing algorithm by logging out of the app during non-peak hours to trigger higher surge pricing. The lawsuit is seeking class-action status on behalf of all American Uber customers and a subset who have paid for surge pricing. “We disagree with this ruling,” a spokesperson for Uber, which is not named in the suit, told Reuters. “These claims are unwarranted and have no basis in fact.”Uber founder and CEO Travis Kalanick, who is being sued over alleged price-fixing by his popular ride-sharing service, has failed in his effort to have the suit against him dismissed, Gothamist reports. The class-action suit, brought by Spencer Meyer, of Connecticut, in December 2015, claims that Uber’s pricing algorithm violates antitrust laws. Uber has gone to great lengths to classify its drivers as independent contractors rather than employees, a distinction of significant financial importance for the company. Meyer’s suit argues that this very classification places Uber on the wrong side of the law. Because the company’s drivers are independent contractors, the suit says, they are all technically in competition with one another, which makes Uber’s pricing system an illegal, competition-eliminating price-fixing mechanism. “Uber has a simple but illegal business plan: to fix prices among competitors and take a cut of the profits,” the lawsuit claims. “Kalanick is the proud architect of that business plan.” U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff ruled Tuesday that Kalanick will have to face the lawsuit. The case is set to go to court in for November. “The advancement of technological means for the orchestration of large-scale price-fixing conspiracies need not leave antitrust law behind,” Rakoff wrote in his ruling, declining to dismiss the suit. “The fact that Uber goes to such great lengths to portray itself—one might even say disguise itself—as the mere purveyor of an ‘app’ cannot shield it from the consequences of it operating as much more.” Meyer’s suit also claims that Uber encourages drivers to artificially manipulate its pricing algorithm by logging out of the app during non-peak hours to trigger higher surge pricing. The lawsuit is seeking class-action status on behalf of all American Uber customers and a subset who have paid for surge pricing. “We disagree with this ruling,” a spokesperson for Uber, which is not named in the suit, told Reuters. “These claims are unwarranted and have no basis in fact.”

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Mississippi vs. Everyone: State’s pushing obscene law that’s not only anti-LGBT, it could also force women to wear makeup

The 2016 legislative session has been a competition between red states to see who can pass the most hateful anti-LGBT bills under the guise of “religious freedom,’ but Mississippi state Republicans look like they’re going to emerge the winner. Friday, the state house passed the final version of a bill meant to protect and encourage business owners in the state to discriminate against LGBT people, while simultaneously enshrining, in violation of the constitution, the idea that conservative Christianity is the only legitimate religion. But, because they have to win the war of the Bible-thumpers, Mississippi Republicans went a step further than other states that have passed similar anti-gay bills. This law not only protects discrimination against LGBT people, but against any person who has sex outside of marriage. It also makes it easier for employers and schools to strictly police the way you dress to make sure it’s masculine or feminine enough. If your boss thinks proper ladies wear make-up, he can cite “religious freedom” as a reason to force you to do so, and the law will protect him for it. The state laid out three religious beliefs that give business owners broad permission to discriminate against people on the basis of:

The sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions protected by this act are the belief or conviction that: (a) Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman; (b) Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and (c) Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.

These are, to be clear, the only religious beliefs the state deems worthy of extra-special protection. If you belong to a church that doesn’t preach hate — and there are many faiths, both Christian and otherwise, that accept LGBT people and don’t think premarital sex is a sin — too bad, so sad. The state of Mississippi doesn’t think your religion is a legitimate one. The only faith deemed worthy of this kind of legislation is the kind that teaches that religion’s purpose is in policing other people’s sexual behaviors. The bill then goes on to offer two levels of protection for bigots who want to discriminate, with religious organizations getting broad rights and private persons and business owners getting somewhat less expansive, but still terrifying rights. Religious organizations are allowed to deny employment, housing, and other services. Private businesses are allowed to deny any marriage-related services (including jewelry selling) to anyone who meets the three criteria. State employees can refuse marriage licenses, as well, and they are offered special protections to “express” the above religious beliefs. Which means that if you work for the state and enjoy haranguing gay coworkers or single women about how they’re going to hell, it will be close to impossible to fire you for it. To be clear, being able to discriminate against gay people, transgender people and fornicators is already legal, to one extent or another, in Mississippi. What this law does is deny the state the right to “discriminate” against anyone who would do so. That might seem minor, but in reality, removing any threat of losing government money or contracts for forcing your bigoted religious beliefs on others is actually a pretty strong check on a lot of this behavior. For instance, a lot of this bill would make it easier to discriminate against people who are seeking social services. As the ACLU of Mississippi points out, homeless shelters, food banks, and day cares who call themselves “religious organizations” — i.e., many to most of them — would be able to turn away a single mother and her children on the grounds that she’s a sinful fornicator. Religious charter schools who get government money could expel students who are believed to be having sex. Adoption agencies can discriminate not just against gay couples and single people, but against any couple they believe had sex before they were married. The law also offers broad protections to those who would deny medical care to people. If you work for hospital or clinic that gets government money, you can deny transgender people treatments related to their transition or “psychological, counseling, or fertility services” to anyone in the official list of naughty people. If a counseling service kicks you out for being gay or having sex outside of marriage, they can’t lose their government contract over it under this bill. As the ACLU points out, this also allows foster parents to force kids into “conversion therapy” run by quacks who believe you can pray the gay away, and the state cannot do anything about it. The bill also grants broad rights to businesses and organizations to play the gender police: “The state government shall not take any discriminatory action against a person wholly or partially on the basis that the person establishes sex-specific standards or policies concerning employee or student dress or grooming.” So if a school decided to punish a girl or a trans boy for getting a short haircut or for refusing to wear skirts or make-up, then the state couldn’t do anything about it. Beyond just the specific threats, this bill is troubling because it’s about building up legal precedent for two repugnant ideas: That discriminating against people on the basis of sexuality and gender is acceptable and that the state should be flagging certain religious beliefs as better than others. In a sane world, both notions would be seen as flagrant violations of the constitution, which forbids establishment of religion and upholds equal protection under the law. But with the Supreme Court in disarray, it appears that Republicans are feeling feistier than ever in stomping all over the foundational principles of this country. On top of all that, this bill violates some pretty important federal regulations and could lead to the federal government stripping the state of education funding. Hopefully, Gov. Phil Bryant will realize this kind of radical bigotry against not just LGBT people but the 95% of Americans who have had premarital sex  is a step way to far, and will veto it.

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